Levelling up: so what for ‘local’ school systems in England ?

The government has launched its Levelling Up White Paper, with every part of England able to get ‘London style’ powers and a mayor ‘if they wish.’ The proposals include plans for 55 new ‘Educational Investment Areas’ which have been identified based on an analysis of pupil outcomes in local authority districts.      

The assumption behind Levelling Up seems to be that place – or ‘the local’ – still matters, even in a globalized world. However, we argue here that the idea of ‘the local’ is changing in England’s school system and that this has significant implications for any attempt to revitalize improvement efforts and enhance pupil outcomes, in particular for the most disadvantaged. 

This is the second blog post from our EQuaLLS research project which is seeking to understand the nature and development of local learning systems (LLSs), with a focus on continuous professional development and learning (CPDL) in primary mathematics. We have initially conceptualised a LLS as having eight main features, shown in this infographic. Our first post argued that England’s school system has been going through a process of fragmentation and reformation.  

Over the past few months, we have conducted interviews with system leaders working across three local areas in England. In a broad sense, a system leader in education is someone that has authority or influence over multiple schools. We have started by interviewing system leaders because we think they can provide a helicopter perspective of each local system. We have interviewed leaders in Maths Hubs, CEOs of multi-academy trusts (MATs), Ofsted Regional Directors, regional leads at the Department for Education, directors of Research Schools, Local Authority (LA) representatives, Teaching School Hub leads, maths entrepreneurs in edu-businesses, and chairs of Primary Headteacher Associations. In the next stage of the research, we will visit a representative sample of schools in each locality and speak with classroom teachers, maths subject leads, and headteachers.

There was little consensus among the system leaders we interviewed regarding the continued relevance of geography to CPDL and the school systems they lead across.

During our conversations with system leaders, the concept of place and the relevance of geographic boundaries has been a constant theme. There is widespread acknowledgment that – historically – geography has been a central if under-recognised feature of the system, reflecting the time when all schools were maintained by the LA. But there is a sense that local identities and ways of working have become more complex and multi-dimensional, as once strong roles and relationships between the LA, DfE, and school leaders have been fragmented. MATs are not bound by geographic boundaries and many trusts straddle multiple LA areas. Many of the other new players in the system – Maths Hubs, Research Schools, Teaching School Hubs and so on – do have a specified geographic footprint, but their remits are not organised along traditional LA boundary lines. Many LAs are also being reshaped – as combined authorities – or are sharing their roles with the new elected mayors and equivalent devolved arrangements, a process that the Levelling Up White Paper promises to expand.

Meanwhile, of course, schools and teachers can and do collaborate and undertake CPDL in a much wider range of ways, including online and via social media. Most commercial CPDL providers are not based in a given locality. Schools and teachers engage with networks and organisations that might be local, regional, or national, such as Challenge Partners and the Chartered College of Teaching.

Unsurprisingly, given these unfolding changes, there was little consensus among the system leaders we interviewed regarding the continued relevance of geography to CPDL and the school systems they lead across.

System leaders provided various examples of how local geographic boundaries remain relevant in understanding England’s education system. For example, the DfE has relied on LA district boundaries to identify its Educational Investment Areas and to distribute funding to Opportunity Areas. Equally, in those areas where academisation has been slower, LAs have retained elements of their previous role, particularly in rural areas where MATs have been slower to take on large numbers of small primaries. Even in areas with high levels of academisation, our interviews with LA leaders suggest that they continue to play a role in shaping local provision. 

At the same time, what is clear from our interviews is that ‘the local’ is becoming less clear cut and, arguably, less relevant as ever more schools become academised. For example, MAT CEOs explained that they want their staff to identify as a member of their trust first and foremost, presumably making local identities and allegiances less significant in the process. The relationship between national and local priorities is also shifting. Teaching School Hubs, for example, are responsible for delivering the national Early Career Framework and National Professional Qualifications, replacing (or, in several cases, working with) the more numerous and local former Teaching School Alliances.    

These initial conversations about place and the importance of ‘the local’ have brought up important questions that we will continue to explore as the research develops. What role might LAs or the new Levelling Up Mayors play in educational governance and provision as academisation continues? How does the Hub model for CPDL delivery, which relies on geographic boundaries, provide effective CPDL in this new environment? How do place-based hubs support CPDL in schools belonging to MATs operating across geographic boundaries? If traditional place-based identities and ways of working are becoming more multi-dimensional, what new boundaries might be forming and how might these facilitate or frustrate equal access to high-quality CPDL among practitioners working in different schools? What are the implications of all this for equity and quality, in particular in the most disadvantaged schools? These are the questions that provide direction as we shift our attention to individual schools in the second phase of our research.

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