Ofsted chief's warning to councils
Local councils are in "the last chance saloon" in having a role to play in raising standards in schools, the chief of Ofsted has warned.
Sir Michael Wilshaw said that questions are being asked, especially following the alleged "Trojan horse" takeover schools plot in Birmingham, about whether local authorities should take any part in school improvement in the future.
In a speech, he told children's services bosses that they should be concerned about their role being cut further if they do not use their remaining powers to intervene in failing schools wisely.
The Local Government Association, which represents councils, has previously said that authorities should be given more powers to step in to help boost school standards, calling for them to be given the ability to trigger Ofsted inspections and intervene where academies - which are not under their control - have problems/
But Sir Michael told the Association of Directors of Children's Services (ADCS) annual conference that councils can already take action if they have concerns, and few are doing so.
He said that councils' responsibilities are enshrined in statute, adding: " The question is, are you taking those responsibilities seriously and are you stepping up to the plate, or have you already thrown in the towel?"
" In all honesty, I have to say that the evidence is, at best, mixed and that is worrying," Sir Michael said.
"Worrying, because, as I said last year, local authorities, to use an old cliché, are 'drinking in the last chance saloon' in relation to their role and function to raise standards in our schools.
"Your concern should be that if you do not use your remaining powers wisely, the political pressure to curtail your role further will only increase. Indeed, to continue the analogy - the pub might shut, the last drinker turfed out and the brewery turned into a free school."
The Ofsted chief inspector said that while there are exceptions, many Westminster politicians see councils as part of the problem in raising school standards, rather than the solution.
"At best, they perceive the type of sluggish and half-hearted local authority response to emerging problems, which we have seen and reported on in Birmingham, as all too typical," Sir Michael said.
"At worst, they suspect some councils are actively colluding with those who have an interest in resisting change."
Last month Ofsted issued a damning verdict on the running of a number of schools in Birmingham.
Five schools in the city were placed in special measures after a series of inspections in the wake of the "Trojan Horse" allegations of a takeover plot by hardline Muslims.
In an advice note to Education Secretary Michael Gove outlining its findings, Ofsted also warned that Birmingham City Council had failed to support a number of schools in the area in their efforts to protect pupils from the ''risks of radicalisation and extremism''.
In his speech today, Sir Michael said that councils can write to the Department for Education (DfE), an academy's sponsor or to Ofsted if they have worries about a school that is not under their control.
"The problem is, far too few of you are doing this," he said.
"My postbag is not exactly bulging with letters from concerned directors of children's services, imploring Ofsted to go in and inspect a poorly performing school within their boundaries.
"While I'm persuaded that you still have a role to play, I'm less certain that enough local authorities have come to terms with just how fundamentally the nature of their relationship with schools has changed.
"There is absolutely no point in councils yearning for a return to some all-controlling relationship with schools - that has already been consigned to history.
"But you do have a role. You are still responsible for safeguarding, for special needs and for school places. You may no longer deliver education directly in many of your local schools but you certainly have an obligation to know how well children are being educated in all of them. As far as child wellbeing is concerned, the buck stops with you."
Sir Michael said councils need to be "dynamic and proactive agents for improvement" and push for a good education for every child.
Councillor David Simmonds, chairman of the LGA's children and young people board, said: "Councils concerned about the performance of schools in their areas have been getting mixed messages from Ofsted and the Government for a long time.
"In early May, the Department for Education (DfE) issued guidance which said it was the Secretary of State, not local authorities, who hold academies to account for their performance and that councils should concentrate on improving council-maintained schools.
"However, we have recently seen evidence of councils being criticised for failing to provide challenge and improvement support to under-performing academies."