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Government must do more to re-connect schools within the wider community

Photo credit: Mark Kerrison / Alamy Stock Photo

Baroness Morris

Baroness Morris

3 min read

School reform over the past 30 years has significantly changed the school system. We have seen a shift from schools having little autonomy, and being part of a tightly knit local authority school system, to one where schools have greater freedom but have no obligation to be part of any wider local school system: from low school autonomy and a strong school system to higher school autonomy and a weaker school system.

All school accountability measures focus on individual school performance. There is nothing that measures, records or reports to parents on the contribution many schools make to raising standards across the school system or to the role they play in the wider community. 

Greater school autonomy has undoubtedly encouraged innovation and led to higher standards and greater professionalism – few would want to turn back the clock. Yet there is a downside. Whilst welcoming the freedoms that come with having greater autonomy, many teachers have regretted the isolation that often goes with it. Teaching is, in part, a collaborative activity, not one where you can hide yourself away from fellow professionals. Schools need both independence and interdependence.  

This dash for autonomy has created two major problems. First, it has made collaboration more difficult. Second, the ambition for a nation of independent autonomous schools completely ignores the importance of place. With the demise of the local education authority, there is now no framework in which schools serving the same geographical community can be brought together. 

There is no one to hold the ring for education as a public good. Other organisations which serve the same community – employers, arts and sports organisations, health and police authorities – find themselves having to build relationships with scores of autonomous schools.  

Place matters not just because it gives teachers and pupils part of their identity but because schools are a central part of their community.  

The ambition for a nation of independent autonomous schools completely ignores the importance of place-based education

Education policy began to recognise the problem of fragmentation and moved to re-connect schools. Education Action Zones and Excellence in Cities were important early Labour policies but they weren’t designed to create a school system. Other initiatives have followed: federations, clusters, and multi-academy trusts – but, again, they aren’t designed to build a school system where place is recognised, valued and everyone belongs.  

The risk is that as schools become part of larger groups we weaken individual school autonomy and we have a weaker school system because nothing connects the groups.  

The framework and incentives by which schools, or groups of schools, relate to each other and to the wider community is in limbo. Two legislative attempts over the past six years to make all schools academies have failed and it is not clear what will come next. It increasingly matters less whether a school is an academy or a maintained school than whether there is a structure in which schools in the same place, serving the same community, can relate to each other.  

This is a policy vacuum that many teachers are trying to fill themselves. In scores of towns and cities across the country, they are coming together to form local partnerships. They are not all the same but they have at their core some important principals. They are all teacher led, place-based and open to all schools no matter if they are academies, maintained schools, faith schools or free schools. They have a relationship with the local authority, although that too differs, and their main focus is on school improvement. They respect and value the autonomy of schools and they are beginning to build a framework that serves the locality: high autonomy and a strong school system.  

Baroness Morris of Yardley is a Labour peer and former education secretary 

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