Local schools for local kids

By Karen Wespieser

Friday 24 April 2015

It is now 10 years since Alastair Campbell’s now infamous claim that the days of the ‘bog-standard comprehensive’ are over.  Whether or not this is true, I have been discussing this in a series of blogs on school choice (School Choice, a social mobility issue? and I have a choice), how a majority of parents still want to rely on their local school.

Last week I explored new data that showed local factors such as the ‘school that suits my child’ and the location of the school are some of the most important factors in this choice, especially for those with the lowest household income. This week, to coincide with the publication of further data from our nationally representative parent survey, I want to look at who parents hold responsible for the quality of education and how schools should be held accountable.

Just as local factors have the greatest influence on school choice; parents also reported that, in their opinion, schools should be locally accountable. However, our survey did not provide any further definition of local accountability and this could have been interpreted by respondents in a number of ways (e.g. such as being held accountable by parents themselves and/or the school governing body).

Therefore, looking at accountability from a different angle, we asked parents who they think is most responsible for the quality of their child’s education. The response was that overwhelmingly, parents hold school staff (headteachers and class teachers) most responsible. Not Ofsted and not the government, and most interestingly, not those who (technically and legally) are responsible for maintaining the school – either the local authority or the academy chain (noting of course that not all academies are part of a chain).

This is unsurprising, if you have a problem with your child’s maths homework – you speak to their maths teacher. If you have a problem with the maths teacher – you speak to the head, and so on.

But where it is potentially more insightful is when it is viewed through the lens of another question we asked – ‘do you feel you have a say in how your child’s school is run?’ Only 35 per cent of parents felt that they have a say; this is interesting when you compare it to the 46 per cent who named parents/carers as having responsibility for the quality of their child’s education. This suggests that parents feel they should have some responsibility, but don’t feel they are currently getting it.

Overall, this drive for local accountability – whether it is at school or parent level – is echoed in the two main party manifestoes. The Conservatives pledge to increase the number of Free Schools and continue the academy programme whilst Labour plan to offer similar freedoms to all schools. Both of these policies firmly cite responsibilities with local actors (heads, teachers, governors) and seem responsive to parental desires. But our evidence suggests that alongside these expansions, there needs to be a commitment to clarifying the accountability mechanisms for parents.

Both manifestoes also include a new level of oversight – Regional School Commissioners (already implemented by the Coalition government) and Directors of School Standards (Labour). Our survey didn’t ask specifically about this type of role, but based on our findings, the importance of ensuring they are accessible and transparent to parents is clear.

The lack of responsibility afforded by parents to academy chains is perhaps one of the most interesting findings in our data. In my next and final blog in this series, I will look at what parents know (and don’t know) about the biggest change in the education landscape over the past five years – the rise of academy schools the final piece in the local choice puzzle.