A pale shadow of democracy

The government’s new local arrangements for overseeing schools are a pale shadow of what we need.

A new regional architecture is being created to oversee England’s schools and we are beginning to see its outlines. Mostly, it’s made up of central government appointees like the 8 new Regional School Commissioners (RSCs) who will monitor the performance of academies, decide on the creation of new academies, shape the system and work with sponsors to ensure they meet local needs.

For London, the regional carve up makes little sense with the capital split between 3 massive regions bringing Newham, Norfolk and Peterborough together into one region and Islington, Milton Keynes and Wokingham together into another. It’s almost as if someone deliberately set out to deny the existence of a Greater London Authority which is after all elected by Londoners to manage a range of strategic functions across the capital.

Nevertheless, there is a democratic element in the structure. The RSCs will be ‘advised and challenged’ by a Headteacher Board (HTB) of 6-8 members, 4 of whom will be elected. Nominations are open and voting closes on 11th July.

The problem is that this oasis of democracy is the wrong sort located in the wrong place offering us none of the benefits of local electoral accountability.

So, before we gear up for a vigorous election campaign where we get to discuss and choose between competing visions of education, we need to examine what’s on offer.

These representatives will be agents of central government sprinkled with a thin dusting of localism. The successful candidates will have:

  • no real power; they will still be creatures of central government
  • no accountability; elected by a tiny electorate of headteachers, how will they account for their actions and who to?
  • no oversight of the whole system; their remit excludes all schools that are not academies
  • no transparency; on what basis will their decisions be made? Will the case for or against particular sponsors or conversions be made in public with scrutiny of the arguments?

Another consequence of the new structure is to further fragment any decision-making about local post-16 provision. With the number of sixth form providers proliferating, the new RSCs and HTBs will presumably be ruling on the aspirations of any existing or convertor academies to open new sixth forms while having no influence or relationship with FE and sixth form  colleges which are usually the major post-16 providers in an area. The decision not to include these incorporated colleges in this structure is another sign of its incoherence. This will do nothing to stop more selection post-16 as new sixth forms scramble for the “best” students.

It is bizarre that the government which gave us police commissioners and trusts us to elect them by universal suffrage doesn’t want us to elect the educational equivalent or the boards which will advise them. We should welcome any injection of democracy into the running of our public services but this structure is a spectacular missed opportunity to create some local responsiveness and accountability where it might do some good.

“Je serais…l’ombre de ton ombre” sings Jacques Brel in “Ne me quitte pas” as he begs to be allowed to stay: “I’ll be…the shadow of your shadow”.

These elections are not just a shadow of democracy, but the shadow of democracy’s shadow – with as little hope of promoting democratic debate as Brel’s spurned lover has of getting back together.

About Eddie Playfair

I am a Senior Policy Manager at the Association of Colleges (AoC) having previously been a college principal for 16 years and a teacher before that. I live in East London and I blog in a personal capacity about education and culture. I also tweet at @eddieplayfair
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