Read-out from the Shaping the role of the local authority in education conference in Bristol

I was delighted to be invited to present an overview of our “temperature check”report at a conference on the role of local authorities in education in Bristol last week. It was fascinating to hear from a range of local authority and school leaders about developments in their local systems, and to reflect on the next stage of evolution on which those systems are embarking.

One of the most striking features of the day's discussions was how little we debated the role of local authorities themselves. There were some references to our description of the role in terms of champion, convener and commissioner. For the most part, however, local authority and school leaders took this as read, and were exploring specific practical and ongoing challenges around shaping services, planning provision and improving outcomes for all children in their local system. Some of the key themes that ran throughout the discussions were of the importance of fostering trust, collective leadership and co-operative decision-making, as well as managing tension pro-actively and constructively, many of which chimed with the lessons for leading change we highlighted in our study.

In addition, there were a number of interesting topics that were explored during the day's discussions, which are captured below.

School improvement and intervention

  • The LASSI framework – local leaders were understandably interested to hear from speakers about their experiences of working in or with local authorities that had been inspected under Ofsted's LASSI (local authority support for school improvement) framework, and much anticipation about the revised framework.

  • Bristol becoming a ‘learning city’ – school and local authority leaders in Bristol set out how they were moving forward following their focused inspection, and transforming Bristol into a ‘learning city’. They had some interesting reflections about how to build trust between leaders within the local system, starting from the simple principle of acknowledging the important role that all leaders, those within the local authority and in schools, and those in formal and informal leadership positions, have to play.

  • Developing traded services – we heard about the development of Essex Education Services, from which the key lesson was not to start by saying “we must have traded services”, but to think first about what you want to achieve, second about what your customers (i.e. schools and other settings) want, and third about the way in which decisions about services will be made. Doing those things should drive the model, and will ensure it fits the local context.

  • Relationships between local authorities and academies – we had an interesting presentation from an academy principal and local authority leader from Bexley about the relationship they had developed between the local authority and local academy principals. A key theme here was to ensure that relationship was based on formative, not just summative, accountability.

  • Early days of the Regional Schools Commissioners – the consensus was that it was too early to make any judgement about how the new Regional Schools Commissioners and Headteacher Boards are working, but that they had made a good start to building relationships with local authority and school leaders.


  • Market failure, school closure, decommissioning – throughout the day, there were some interesting reflections about some of the ongoing challenges posed by planning school places. The consensus was that place-planning over the past few years had mostly focused on expanding existing provision, and that, in the next phase of evolution of local systems, there needed to more thinking about effective ways of decommissioning provision and taking tough decisions in instances of market failure.

  • Special educational needs (SEN) place-planning – there was broad agreement that this was another area of place-planning where further thinking was needed at local level. We had an interesting presentation from Birmingham City Council about their early thoughts, and the plans for places for young people with complex needs on which they are currently consulting. The phrase they used to describe planning places in the current environment was, tellingly, the ‘collaborative jelly jigsaw.’

Support for vulnerable children

  • Lots of activity to prepare for 1 September – we heard from colleagues about the work that had been done within local systems, at the strategic level and in schools and other settings, to prepare for the introduction of the new SEN framework.

  • Serious collective thinking required – a key reflection was that we should not see 1 September as the end of the work to develop local systems of support for young people with SEN, but as the start of an ongoing dialogue between local authorities, schools and colleges, other professionals, and young people and their families about the shape of local provision. Within this, the consensus was that the local offer had great potential to stimulate and shape these conversations within local systems.

Ben Bryant