Doing, and sticking to, your knitting
Today I’ve been stuck in the middle tier.
This morning, at the first in a series of RSA seminars on hot or emerging education issues, we held a terrific seminar to inform Robert Hill’s forthcoming pamphlet on the role of a middle tier in education. As Chair, I was initially intimidated but ultimately inspired by the hundreds of years of experience in the room. This is a theme where elegant solutions seem easy to create, but policy memory is urgently required, as well as a strong articulation of the precise problem to be solved. Amongst the healthy disagreement, a degree of consensus emerged around the need for some ‘knitting in the middle’, a brokerage role to identify school improvement needs as early as possible, and match this need with appropriate providers. Great Local Authorities already do this, but at the other end of the scale many seem less able than ever to perform this function.
We then hosted the official launch of the RSA/PCPL Academies Commission. Christine Gilbert’s speech gave the clearest of rationales for our Commission’s approach. She also confirmed her reluctance to recommend any need for an additional middle tier, an argument she had made in Friday’s TES. She may be right, and additional layers of bureaucracy are generally worth avoiding. However, at this stage she should rule nothing out. If we want to maximise the benefits and reduce the negative outcomes of academisation, this might require significant devolution of bureaucratic responsibilities currently being carried out by DfE. For instance, planning supply of new school places (yes, that means Free Schools too); allocating capital funding, and writing and holding the funding agreements with academies or their chains. If so, these powers will have to go somewhere, and if the local authority isn’t the appropriate locus, then regional or sub-regional structures may need to be harnessed or even created.
Many of the excellent questions from the audience asked the commission to broaden its remit. In some cases, this is justified; for instance, Commissioners accepted that they needed to explore issues around inclusion and exclusion, as well as admissions. However, Commissioners were also right to create clear boundaries around their work (it’s a speed commission, after all). It needs to focus on academisation rather than drift into broader policy issues; and even within the academisation theme, its focus is on how, rather than whether. The call for evidence opens today and closes on 30th June. Any call for evidence always elicits responses which risk mission creep. To succeed within the eight month timeframe, the Commission will need to carry on ‘sticking to its knitting.’
One audience contributor asked the Commission to learn from the FE sector, which in essence went through a universal and largely successful academisation process over twenty years ago. Perhaps, in the existence of two hundred or so FE colleges, we already have an appropriate sub-regional structure for education that is perfectly located, sized, and connected with employers and HE to play a key middle tier role on behalf of the schools on their patch. With some additional capacity and resource, could the FE sector be a middle tier in waiting?