Has the coronavirus pandemic subverted thirty years of education policy?


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Message from the Editor:

I am thrilled to take over the reins of the BELMAS blog and to introduce the first post since becoming editor. Ian’s blog couldn’t be more relevant right now. He raises topical issues in educational leadership - which have interested us all for a long time – within the context of the Covid-19 pandemic. Are we facing a role-revival for Local Authorities? I think many of us will follow with a keen interest to see where this ‘rare policy deviation,’ as Ian puts it, will take us in the months and years to come.

 Ian manages to weave his many years of leadership experience with the thinking emerging from his doctoral research to create a very interesting and thought-provoking read. We’d love to hear what you think, so do share any thoughts or comments about the points Ian raises via Twitter using #BELMASblog

 - Suzanne


Author: Ian Dewes

The coronavirus pandemic has led to the role of schools changing from being a universal service aimed at educating all children, to one of focusing on providing childcare to vulnerable pupils and the children of key workers.  This is the biggest change I have seen in my eighteen year career.  Beyond the difficulties faced by those working in schools, we may have seen a rare deviation from a generation of education policy.

A series of policies since the 1980’s has gradually eroded the role of the local authority (LA) in educational leadership and management.  Grant maintained schools and City Technology Colleges were created to be independent of local authorities and provide a broader choice of educational establishment for parents.  Academies carried on this policy and by 2018 50.1% of pupils studying in state-funded schools in England were in an academy (DfE 2018).  Andrew Wilkins has described recent years as a “repoliticisation” of the education system, where LA and local democratic controls are removed and central government’s influence more keenly felt. 

Successive governments have continued this trajectory of policy.  Academies were started by Labour and they were continued and expanded by the Conservatives who were for a time in coalition with the Liberal Democrats.  No alternative approach has won support at the ballot box.  Consequently, there is a neat continuation in approach which, for someone my age (born in the early 1980s), has lasted a lifetime. 

Although Helen Young has pointed out that, for an academy, the political accountability of an LA is simply replaced by market accountability, the government has made much of the freedoms on offer to schools which leave LA control and become academies. Minister for Schools Nick Gibb stated that, “by empowering teachers and headteachers and promoting an atmosphere of innovation and evidence, power is wrestled from the old authorities.” (DfE 2017). 

However, the coronavirus pandemic has led to a rare policy deviation with the independence of academies from LAs reined in.  The sudden change to schools being focused on childcare has led to LAs having a central role in co-ordinating provision.  With many schools struggling to stay open for vulnerable pupils and the children of key workers, in late March the DfE published the following:

“We expect schools and local authorities should work together to ensure that different settings are supported to stay open wherever possible…and we want local authorities to help coordinate what this means, working with education settings to deliver the services required. That includes academies, the independent sector, and boarding schools.” 
(Department for Education)

The expectation that has been placed on LAs is challenging.  The policy direction for many years has left LAs with a hollowed-out staff structure, yet they are co-ordinating provision across a range of settings which have grown used to being largely autonomous. 

In the local authority where my federation is based, schools (including academies) are organised into local groups.  As the pandemic developed, some schools struggled to stay open - either because staff and pupils were contracting the virus, or, when schools partially closed, they had too few children remaining to make staying open viable.  The local authority tasked the chair of each regional group of schools to co-ordinate provision in their area.  As one of the chairs, I helped to organised schools into clusters with shared contingency plans.  When one setting closed due to a lack of staff, its remaining pupils were accommodated at a nearby school.  There was a high level of co-ordination among schools including most academies, although some academies were surprised to see the local authority be given a co-ordinating role.  Simple acts such as requests for information were met with some scepticism, as if to question what right the LA had to know about goings-on in an academy.  One academy, part of a large trust, relied on its relationship with other schools in the trust for its contingency plan.  Rather than working with the schools nearest, they preferred to have a contingency plan with the nearest school in a trust.  This left the families of displaced children with a journey across town should their school not remain open.  Other trusts were happier to work with maintained schools and join the LA plan.   

Why have the government given the LA a central role in coordinating provision during the pandemic?  The rapid nature of recent developments may well have been a key factor.  The education system has changed significantly, practically overnight, with little chance for preparation.  I would argue that it has revealed a disjointed education system where LA’s resources have been greatly reduced and new structures, such as Regional School Commissioners (RSC), are not fully formed.  It is interesting that RSCs have not been given a greater role during the crisis.  Perhaps in the heat of a crisis the criticism often made (yet ignored by the DfE) that RSC regions are too large for the Commissioners to be “sufficiently in touch with local information” has come to the fore.  LAs may have seemed a relic from before the 1980s, but in a time of crisis they have performed a crucial role.  

Ian Dewes is the Executive Head of the Dunchurch Schools’ Federation and a National Leader of Education.  He is also a non-executive director at a large academy trust and a governor at a maintained primary school.  He is researching the influence of neoliberalism in the governance of academy trusts for a professional doctorate at Birmingham City University.

Like Suzanne mentioned, please let us know any thoughts on this blog post by tweeting us at @BelmasOffice with the hashtag #BELMASBlog. Look forward to seeing you there! - The Belmas Office Team


2 Wilkins A. (2016). Modernising School Governance: Corporate Planning and Expert Handling in State Education Abingdon, Routledge.

3 Young, H. (2015). Governing bodies: Knowledge, Experts and Accountability in School Educational Management Administration & Leadership 45(1) November 2015.

4 DfE 2017

5 DfE Actions for schools During the Coronavirus Outbreak 22nd March 2020

6 Education Committee, Fourth report of session 2014–15, Academies and Free Schools, HC 258, Para 99



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