26 SES 08 C, Centralization, Decentralization and Bureaucracy
Most large school systems have intermediate administrative structures between central government and schools. These can play one or both of two key roles: an administrative role in ensuring that the provision of schooling operates effectively, efficiently and equitably at the local level and that the system as a whole is manageable; and a democratic role in giving local people the opportunity for voice and influence in relation to the way schooling operates locally. In the English system historically the local authority (LA) has played both these roles. However, they have been challenged and modified over recent years with administrative functions once delegated to school level; and LA powers bypassed as schools have been increasingly subject to centralised regimes of testing, inspection and intervention for perceived school underperformance. Policies instituted since the 2010 General Election have accelerated this trend. In pursuit of a school system that comprises primarily ‘publicly-funded independent schools’, the Government is encouraging, or requiring schools to become ‘academies’, operating independently of LA influence under direct funding agreements with central government (DfE 2010). By September 2013 3304 schools had converted to academy status: 9% of primary schools and 52% of secondary schools.
The space previously occupied by LAs, therefore, is being ‘hollowed out’, leading to what has been termed the problem of future of the ‘middle tier’ (Hill, 2012; House of Commons, 2013; Aston et al, 2013). Ball has argued that such developments are creating ‘heterarchies’ - ‘a new mix of hierarchy, market and network which is replete with overlap, multiplicity, mixed ascendancy, and/or divergent but co-existent patterns of relations’ (Ball, 2009: 100); these ideas have clear resonance at the local level (Woods and Simkins, 2014). In this context, we are interested in two aspects of these changes. First, an increasing emphasis on a ‘self-improving school system’ (Hargreaves, 2010, 2011) is leading to new forms of collaborative partnership such as chains, federations and teaching school alliances. Some writers argue that no middle tier is necessary beyond these forms of collaboration, with schools, either individually or as part of chains, competing in a market place although subject to accountability for performance from the centre (O’Shaugnessy 2012). However, others have argued that such arrangements cannot ensure joint responsibility for, and equity among, all children in a locality (Chapman and Salokangas 2013; Parish et al 2012).
It is how these two aspects – the continuing role of LAs and the emergence of new patterns of school organisation - evolve into new local schooling ‘landscapes’ that is the focus of this study. Our contention is that, with the concept of a ‘system’ being increasingly redundant, the consequences need to be explored in detail at local level. Accordingly, we draw on research in three very different local authority areas to consider two questions. First, what patterns of schooling are emerging in these local contexts? Second, what factors are driving the changes in each locality? The second question leads us on to consider the role of key players in influencing the changes that are taking place.
This study will be of interest beyond England for three reasons. First, the overall thrust of Government policy in England, combining increased school autonomy with tighter outcome-based accountability, is increasingly mirrored in other jurisdictions in Europe and beyond. In this context, the ‘extreme’ English form of this model will be of wider interest. Secondly, as new policy frameworks emerge across Europe, how the concept of the ‘middle tier’ can be theorised will be of increasing importance. And thirdly, methodologically the study presents an approach to exploring the ‘multi-tiered’ nature of school systems that will be of wider interest.
Aston, H., Easton, C., Sims, D., Smith, R., Walker, F., Crossley, D. and Crossley-Holland, J. (2013) What Works in Enabling School Improvement? The role of the middle tier. Slough: National Foundation for Educational Research. Ball, S. (2009) ‘Academies in context: politics, business and philanthropy and heterarchal governance’, Management in Education, 23(3): 100-103. Chapman, C. and Salokangas, M. (2013) ‘Independent state-funded schools: some reflections on recent developments’, School Leadership and Management, 32(5): 473-486. Department for Education (2010) The Importance of Teaching: the Schools White Paper. London: DfE. Hargreaves, DH (2010) Creating a Self-Improving School System. Nottingham: National College for School Leadership. Hargreaves, DH (2011) Leading a Self-Improving School System. Nottingham: National College for School Leadership. Hill, R (2012) The Missing Middle: The Case for School Commissioners. London: Royal Society of Arts. House of Commons Education Committee (2013) School Partnerships and Cooperation: Fourth Report of Session 2013-14. London: Stationery Office. O’Shaughnessy, J. (2012) Competition Meets Collaboration: Helping School Chains address England’s Long Tail of Educational Failure, London: Policy Exchange. Parish, N., Baxter, A. and Sandals, L. (2012) Action Research into the Evolving Role of the Local Authority in Education: The Final Report for the Ministerial Advisory Group, ISOS Partnership, Research Report DFE-RR224. London: DfE. Woods, P. and Simkins, T. (2014) ‘Understanding the local: themes and issues in the experience of structural reform in England’, Educational Management Administration and Leadership, 42(3) Online.
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