Local troubleshooters should be appointed to identify failing schools and sack incompetent heads, England’s new chief education inspector has said.
Incoming Ofsted chief Sir Michael Wilshaw said spotting failing schools should not be down to him alone. He told the Times newspaper more schools would become independent academies under government reforms.
The Department for Education said parents should play a bigger role on raising standards.
Sir Michael said that by the time Ofsted recognised a school as failing it was often too late, and that this created the need for local troubleshooters or school commissioners to identify problems early. Local authorities already have a role in monitoring standards of the schools for which they are responsible, but academies are independent of local authorities and do not have the same degree of oversight. The number of these schools has grown rapidly over the past year from from 203 in May 2010 to more than 1,000 in September 2011.
Sir Michael called on ministers to appoint dozens of these commissioners in local areas to decide whether to close or merge academies, or replace head teachers or governing bodies where standards were unacceptably low. They could be modelled on commissioners which monitor school standards in the US, he said. But under Sir Michael’s ideas, they would be accountable to central government rather than to city mayors and local councils as they are in the US.
He told the Times: “These people would be non-political, in other words they would not be like LEAs responsible to a council… they would be people who would report directly to the secretary of state…. “I speak as someone who believes in autonomy and who believes in independence and as a great supporter of the academy programme, but we know there will be some academies that won’t do well.
“It is no good just relying on Ofsted to give the judgment. By that time it is too late. We need some sort of intermediary bodies which can detect when things aren’t going well, look at the data and have their ear very close to the ground to determine when there is a certain issue.”
Sir Michael also said scruffy teachers could be rebuked by his organisation, saying school inspection reports should comment on the professional dress and behaviour of staff. “If we turned up at the doctor’s surgery or the lawyer’s offices or a surgeon’s consultation we would expect them to look professional, it’s the same with teachers,” he said.
Stephen Twigg, Labour’s shadow education secretary, said his party would give “serious consideration” to the idea of commissioners, but there needed to be “strong evidence” the plans would work in the UK. “We have been looking at the idea of local schools’ commissioners to raise standards and deal with poorly performing schools, whilst protecting autonomy and local accountability,” he said.
“But the Tory-led government must answer serious questions before bringing in any changes.
Will the new posts be accountable to local parents and communities?
Will the new superintendents be qualified professionals?
“What relationship will they have with local authorities? Will there be a rigorous process of appointment or will the new jobs be given to favoured sons who simply fit with the Tories’ out of touch and out of date ideology?” A Department for Education spokesman said the government had already established the Office of the Schools Commissioner and would take action to deal with any failing school or academy.
“We have also published more information than ever before about how schools are performing, including their spending and results, so they can be held to account and parents really know what is going on in schools, including academies,” he added.
The new chief inspector for Ofsted will take up his post in January. Sir Michael was until recently the head of Mossbourne Academy in east London.
The notion of appointing local schools commissioners to oversee standards is one borrowed from the US, where some states use them to monitor school quality. But it is the rapid expansion of the academy programme that makes it relevant to the English education system.
As each school converts to academy status, with all the freedoms that brings, they opt out of the watchful, monitoring eye of the local education authority. This could leave academies sitting in a potential vacuum of local accountability – one that is particularly worrying if things start to go wrong.
The school commissioner model seeks to tackle this. Under this model, adapted by the Institute of Public Policy Research from the US system, high profile individuals are appointed by the local board or local authority to monitor school standards. Like so much to do with school improvement, they take a stick-and-carrot approach.
They offer support and advice to head teachers struggling to meet adequately the educational needs of their pupils. But if this approach does not have the required impact, school commissioners can then wield the stick, as they have the right to sack incompetent heads and even dissolve a school’s governing body.
The IPPR model suggests the commissioners are appointed by local authorities, who have their duties on school standards boosted as a result. But this government has not made a habit of increasing the powers of local councils. So it is perhaps unsurprising that Sir Michael sees them reporting directly to Education Secretary Michael Gove – the man who asked him to be chief inspector of schools.