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bridging the gap

16 July 2014

The 'middle tier' debate in the education sector

Until relatively recently, local authorities have more or less universally performed the ‘middle tier’ role in the education system, acting as an intermediary tier between schools and central government. However, the role of local authorities in the oversight and running of schools in the last 15 years has been eroded first via the rapid expansion of more autonomous forms of schools and most recently with the rise of academies and free schools. Academies in particular have significantly altered the education landscape, with funding agreements replacing the traditional relationship between schools and local authorities for increasing numbers of education providers.

This has led to a confusing middle tier occupied by local authorities, academy chains, sponsors and trusts, described by one commentator as “dysfunctional and bedevilled by a lack of trust between ministers, local authorities and school leaders”. Some, including the Local Government Association, would argue that recent issues surrounding school accountability in Birmingham are an example of what can go wrong under the current arrangements.

Most would acknowledge that there are challenges emerging as a result of the increasingly atomised schools system and the overall coherence of the system is becoming more strained with each new academy.

Moreover, international evidence suggests that in order to achieve sustained improvement, education systems need a middle tier between schools and the ‘centre’ to perform a strategic role and strengthen delivery across the whole system so that it works in the best interests of local children. McKinsey’s second major report on school systems, How the World’s Best Education Systems Keep Getting Better observed that a “mediating layer” play a critical role for three reasons: they can provide targeted support to schools; act as a buffer between central government and schools; and enhance collaborative exchange between schools.

Against that background, the term ‘middle tier’ has featured prominently in recent discourse on education policy and a number of reports have appeared from a variety of bodies exploring who or what should constitute the middle tier. Across the sources there is a general consensus that a new form of middle tier is required, with the debate concentrating on what form it will take. Currently, the majority of proposals build on the importance of a strategic commissioning role concentrating on school improvement.

The most recent contribution to the debate has been David Blunkett’s report Putting Students and Parents First, on behalf of the Labour Party; the ‘middle tier’ question therefore now looks set to be a key education policy issue in the run up to the General Election in May 2015. This Browne Jacobson report seeks to consider the current thinking on the main proposed solutions to this important issue. 

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Mark Blois

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