Cities and Devolution Bill: the glimmer of a more localist approach towards education?

The content of the Government’s Cities and Devolution Bill* is probably not high on the list of school leaders’ concerns to find out about or think about – even presuming that they are aware of it in the first place. But over time this legislation could turn out to be very significant for schools.

The Bill is the vehicle for creating elected mayors and delegating more powers and finance to the areas that are come under the heading of the ‘Northern Powerhouse’. Schools and education are not specifically mentioned in the Bill – the focus is on giving combined authorities, over which a directly elected mayor will preside, control of transport, housing, strategic planning, health, social care and skills training. It is these functions that are seen as integral to boosting economic growth. Mayors can also potentially take on the functions of the Police and Crime Commissioner for the area, although this will require the consent of all the authorities involved.

The Bill validates an argument I made in ‘The Missing Middle: the case for School Commissioners’** that in England we are in the process of moving to sub-regions being the architects of local economic strategies and growth – and using sub-regional bodies to co-ordinate the strategic planning and delivery of public services to support these plans. It’s an idea whose time is long overdue in what has been a very centralised state.

No service has been more centrally driven in the past 30 years than education. Indeed it is one of the ironies of the post 2010 regime that the Conservatives – who theoretically espouse a smaller state – took stronger central control of the curriculum, accountability targets and school organisation than New Labour ever did. And the Education and Adoption Bill with compulsory academisation of inadequate schools and centrally driven action on ‘coasting schools’ continues this trend.

However, this is where things get interesting. While the Education and Adoption Bill continues along the nationally determined state-centric path, the Cities and Devolution Bill could herald a change of direction – in due course. As I understand the legislation (and I am grateful to Steve Munby for alerting me to this) the Cities and Devolution Bill contains clauses that would allow the Secretary of State for Education to delegate the functions she currently delegates to Regional Schools Commissioners (i.e. tackling underperformance in academies, getting academy sponsors etc) to the new mayors of the combined authorities. There are conditions – the combined authorities would, for example, have to make the case that the powers would be better delivered via the mayor. But if it is appropriate for mayors to oversee the skills agenda is it so far-fetched for them to also have a role in education more generally? Doesn’t it make sense to relate the strategy for meeting a region’s skills needs to the development of young people throughout their school years?

So the Education and Adoption Bill could represent the zenith of England’s nationally driven education revolution. Could we see the mayor for Manchester asking, and in a few years being granted, the overall authority for school performance with that role being exercised through a Commissioner accountable to him or her rather than the Secretary of State. After all as the GLA, Scotland and Wales all illustrate a first delegation of powers is followed by a second and third phase of devolution.

And if Manchester and the other combined authorities in the north-west and the north are granted oversight of education then surely London, which already has an elected mayor, will want the powers as well.

Change will not happen quickly but perhaps, just perhaps, the Cities and Devolution Bill represents the first signs of a resurgence of a more localist and accountable approach towards schooling.

See http://services.parliament.uk/bills/2015-16/citiesandlocalgovernmentdevolution/documents.html

** https://www.thersa.org/discover/publications-and-articles/reports/the-missing-middle-the-case-for-school-commissioners/

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