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‘A better choice for control of education’
THE problem of Oxford’s struggling schools would probably have been picked up earlier if the city council had more responsibility for education, it was claimed last night.
Education expert John Howson has called on district and city councils to have more responsibilities for their area’s primary schools.
Mr Howson, a visiting professor at Oxford Brookes University and visiting research fellow at Oxford University, said as most secondary schools moved towards academy status, it made more sense for the remit for primary schools to pass from Oxfordshire County Council to district and city councils.
He said: “The district councils are closer to where the action is.
“It is difficult to know whether the failure to notice how bad the primary schools in Oxford had become would have happened if Oxford City Council had been responsible, but I think it is less likely.
“If each district council had control of education, there would have been a chief education officer responsible for education in that particular area and the span of control would be much tighter.”
In 2010, Oxford’s seven-year-olds were worst in the country in reading and writing at Key Stage 1 tests.
Prof Howson said if responsibility was devolved, results would be broken down to district rather than county level, highlighting potential problems earlier.
With budgets specific to each district, areas of deprivation could be identified and targeted rather than all funding being swallowed up in a countywide pot.
District councils already have planning powers that he said would help when looking at where new schools were needed.
He said a number of other areas across the country gave the educational responsibility to metropolitan and borough councils, which he said was on a par with the district and city councils in Oxfordshire.
He admitted it would probably be more expensive, as each council would need to provide all the services offered by the county council.
But he said: “What are we trying to achieve, the cheapest solution?
“That is the direction we have been going in for the past 20 years in Oxfordshire and it produced the worst outcomes in the country.”
In February the city council pledged £350,000 to fund under-achieving children and classroom support in Oxford schools as part of its £24m budget, saying it was to plug gaps in the county’s spending.
But Melinda Tilley, county council cabinet member for education, believes powers should remain with the county council.
She said: “We should be informing district councils of what is going on and working closely with them but I don’t think they should have more responsibilities because the expertise lies with us.”
Oxford City Council deputy leader Ed Turner said: “We think it is a nonsense having two tiers of government in Oxford; it would make much more sense to have a unitary council. We would be keen to take more responsibility for schools.
“Oxford has not benefited by being part of a larger county.”
Matthew Barber, leader of Vale of the White Horse District Council, said it was an “interesting idea”.
But he said: “Schools are better off run by schools and the academy model is a very good idea.
“Districts may be better placed to tie in new schools with planning developments but at the moment there is still an awful lot of change and we need to see how academies bed down.”
Barry Norton, leader of West Oxfordshire District Council, also dismissed the idea. He said: “I believe that soon not very many primary schools won’t be academies so the situation won’t arise.”