Concerns are mounting in Whitehall over whether schools are adequately supervised, with the incoming chief inspector of schools calling for a national network of apolitical school commissioners “which can detect when things aren’t going well” to supplement league tables and school inspections.
Sir Michael Wilshaw, who is leaving his job as headmaster of Mossbourne Academy in Hackney to take the post in January, told The Times that “it is no good just relying on Ofsted [the education inspectorate] to give the judgment [on whether schools are failing]. By that time it is too late.”
His comments reflect growing anxiety, shared inside the Department for Education, about the so-called “middle tier” problem.
The government has encouraged schools to become academies – standalone schools outside the local authority system that are funded directly by central government. This process has created 1,463 standalone schools which answer directly to the department with no body to assist, supervise or guide them in the same way that local authorities do for conventional schools.
The problem was raised earlier this month in a paper published by Sir Michael Barber, the chief education adviser at Pearson, the company which owns the Financial Times. The influential policy analyst was recently asked by Michael Gove, education secretary, to be department permanent secretary.
Sir Michael wrote: “It is, after all, unthinkable that the system can operate at all as a system with over 23,000 schools and a remote central government in Westminster. So the question arises, if local authorities won’t ... [be the middle tier], who will?”
Sir Michael Wilshaw has proposed that these new superintendents, who would sit between the school and central government, should be “non-political” and answer directly to the Department for Education. This would mean moving further responsibilities from local government.
David Simmonds, a Conservative councillor from Hillingdon who chairs the Local Government Association education board, said that councils already had “a clear statutory responsibility” to provide accountability for local schools of all forms – including academies. He added: “It is hard to see how a separate layer of Whitehall bureaucracy would add significant value”.
The department said: “We welcome Sir Michael Wilshaw’s thoughts on how we can continue to drive up standards in schools. We have already established the Office of the Schools Commissioner and will take action to deal with any failing school or academy.”