December 6 2013 Latest news:
Friday, September 6, 2013
When Gordon Boyd went for a top education job at Norfolk County Council last year, colleagues were confused – wasn’t the timing strange, when so many schools were becoming academies and leaving the council’s sphere?
As more and more schools change their status and declare independence from County Hall, other people also wonder what role the local authority has left in children’s education.
But Mr Boyd, a former headteacher who is now the council’s assistant director for children’s services, said: “I have always understood there’s a championing role, and the system needs a bit of chivvying and challenging.”
Although the move to academies has brought changes, he said it is not always appreciated that, since the late 1980s, schools have already had significant autonomy, and that, despite the academies programme, local authorities still have a strategic role today.
He breaks the council’s role down into three main areas: championing education standards across state-funded schools in the county, stepping in when individual schools are not performing well enough, and making sure there are enough school places.
Speaking of the 1988 reforms, Mr Boyd said: “The role of the local authority, although not very well defined, was to ensure that educational standards were as high as possible, regardless of which school the children went to, so it became a role of challenge and support, rather than direct management of schools.”
That role remains, despite the academy programme creating a class of schools accountable directly to the government instead of the council; Mr Boyd explains: “They are all Norfolk children.”
This responsibility came into the national spotlight in July when Norfolk County Council became one of the first two authorities whose support for school improvement was judged “ineffective” by Ofsted.
In March, the council published its £1m, two-year Norfolk to Good and Great strategy, to target schools deemed to need improvement.
Mr Boyd said: “The sharp end for us is intervention in schools. I have sharpened my teams in readiness for this point in September.
“I now have a school intervention team which works with schools that are inadequate, or at risk of being inadequate.
“They are removing some of the autonomy that governors have. We have to be there coaching and mentoring governing bodies, and if they don’t very swiftly move in the right direction we should take away their responsibility for money, or put new governors in, or even take over the running of the school.
“We would probably be doing that for a short period, and one possible outcome is that it becomes an academy, and we would pave the way for that to happen.”
The council cannot intervene directly in academies, but it can still challenge them, and it is currently in discussions with the two in Norwich that fell through the government’s minimum standard for GCSEs last month.
In its role as champion of education standards, Mr Boyd said the council’s actions include advocating best practice, and supporting clusters of schools.
One area where he said the rise of the academies has affected the council is the traded services that schools can buy from it, such as human resources, headteacher support and governor services. They had a turnover of about £30m in 2012-13.
He said: “A community school has every opportunity to spend their money where they want.
“They don’t have to spend it with Norfolk County Council. Academies in Norfolk did cause a ripple in the county council because suddenly particular schools were not buying the services they were before.
“But that was not because they were academies, but because they were being innovative.”
But while some services lost the critical mass to sustain them, others have been reintroduced as demand rose again. Flexibility, Mr Boyd said, is the key.