Does local democratic control matter in education?

How far has the education map of England become a picture of two nations growing apart? There are many different ways in which you can consider that question. One is to look at the governance structure of state funded schools. How many are still maintained schools of the various types largely linked to the 1944 Education Act and how many are now the product of the Ball/Gove academy revolution? Among selective schools the answer is that almost all are academies; only 23 remain as maintained schools and 10 of these are in Kent. At the other end of the spectrum, London is the only region where free schools, UTCs and studio schools comprise more than 10% of the total of secondary schools and even there it is still only 11%. This is despite the fact that London has probably seem the greatest demand for new secondary school places since 2010. In the North East and East Midlands areas, just four per cent of secondary schools fall into the category of these new types of nationally administered schools free from local democratic oversight.

However, academies are a group have become the dominant governance form for secondary schools, accounting for almost two out of three secondary schools in England. Nevertheless, the percentage is still lower in the north of England and, perhaps more surprisingly, in London and especially Inner London, where 81 of the 185 secondary schools are still local authority maintained comprehensives than in the rest of England.

Of course, just counting schools is a somewhat imprecise measure, since schools do differ in size from small 11-16 schools to large 2,000+ 11-18 or all-through schools. The same is true in the primary sector, where there as some very large schools coping with recent pupil growth, but still many small schools in rural areas. The percentage of schools that are academies or free schools differs from the secondary sector in some regions.

GO REGION PRIMARY ACADEMIES/FREE SCHOOLS ALL PRIMARY % ACADEMIES/FREE SCHOOLS
SW 632 1870 34%
EM 454 1635 28%
YH 466 1785 26%
WM 437 1776 25%
EE 485 1993 24%
L 363 1816 20%
SE 507 2598 20%
NE 155 861 18%
NW 249 2452 10%
ALL SCHOOLS 3748 16786 22%
 

 

     

However, there are fewer primary academies across much of the north of England and in London. The preponderance of Conservative controlled county councils in the south West many account for the relatively high percentage of primary academies in that regional, although it is still only around one in three primary schools, much lower than the percentage in the secondary sector.

As a Lib Dem politician, I wonder whether it is worth testing a campaign in the South West along the lines of ‘return our schools to community democratic oversight’. The membership has never seemingly taken to academies and control from Westminster in the manner that Lib Dem spokespeople and Ministers seem to have done. I am not sure where the present spokesperson stands on this issue?

Such a campaign might also highlight that there is no way back for schools entering MATs. The government may remove them to another MAT and MATs may voluntarily give up or even close a school, but neither the community not the local governors can seemingly force the trustees, those with the real power in a MAT, do so. Like much of the NHS, this is a denial of local democratic involvement in a key public service.

There is, however, one gain from the academy programme, the 140 academies that are selective schools can have their status changed to non-selective schools much more easily than when they were still maintained schools.

 

Does democracy matter?

The evidence published today by the DfE on achievements by some schools within some academy groups https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/multi-academy-trust-performance-measures-2015-to-2016 is of course interesting, even with the caveats surrounding it.

However, as academies move from novelty innovation to mainstream feature of our school system there are substantial questions to be asked about their impact on the education scene across England. The most fundamental question, and one that both the two main political parties have always avoided, is whether or not local democratic involvement in education is helpful or a waste of time and money? Regular readers of this blog will know where I stand: firmly in the localism court.

Over the past year, since the publication of the White Paper in March, with its view of a fully academised system, to the recent announcement of a role for local authorities as envisaged in the funding of SEN (discussed in the previous post) there seems to have been some change of thinking. Should we consider Multi-Academy Trusts as playing a similar role to the diocese under the former system and academies as a new form of national school, but not very dissimilar to the existing voluntary aided sector.

The real question is whether there are to be two parallel but separate schools systems, one national one more local, but both funded nationally or should there be a recognition that some facets of schools are best handled locally for all schools. A move to reassure councils that in-year admissions were to return to them for all schools with associated funding might be a useful signal of the direction of travel. A second would be to require MATs to have a local authority representative as a trustee. A third might be to break up the role of director of Children’s Services back into a social work role and plus a separate education role. This would certainly help with creating career routes for professionals from both backgrounds.

Personally, I would also like to ensure there aren’t diseconomies of scale that can result when MATs are responsible for schools in many different geographical areas. The advantage of working with local authorities for the DfE is that Regional School Commissioners could be located within the Education Funding Agency and act as Territorial Principals used to do in the days when schooling was a partnership between central and local government. Local Education Scrutiny Committees could be widened to include more than just governor and faith group representatives to encompass the different interest groups, much as former Education Committees used to do before Cabinet government was invented.

What is clear is that the present muddle in the governance of schooling won’t help ensure the improvement of all schools to reach new high standards Britain will need to compete in a world where we have chosen to ‘go it alone’ and break with our continental neighbours. At least the return of FE & HE to the DfE means there is one department at Westminster with responsibility of the whole of education again. But, responsibility doesn’t mean taking operational control, nor does it mean a fully market-based system with no local democratic involvement.

Oasis close an academy in Kent

Hextable Academy in Swanley is to close because of falling rolls. Just when you thought schools needed to expand the Oasis Academy chain has decided to close Hextable Academy in Swanley. The 11-18 school has just fewer than 500 students according to government figures, but could accommodate 1,000 pupils. Those parents and their offspring waiting to hear about 2015 admissions in a fortnight’s time will be especially annoyed, as will the pupils kept at the school to complete their examination courses if teachers decide to quit ahead of the closure. Having worked in a college during a period of run-down prior to closure I know from first experience how little fun such a situation can be for both staff and students. The Academy Trust has at least apparently offered to pay for the new uniform of pupil relocated to another school.

Questions will need to be asked about the future of the site. It would be short-sighted to lose the school from education use if pupil numbers will increase over the next few years. Indeed, one wonders whether it might have been possible to save the school by turning it into a 5-18 all-through school by adding a primary department.

Kent County Council, the local authority, is in something of a difficult situation. They retain the legal responsibility for ensuring an education for all children but have no control over admission numbers in academies and could not have vetoed the decision to shut this school. I hope they will send Oasis a bill for all the extra work required of officers in placing the pupils requiring a new school because of the closure. It would be unfair to expect the council taxpayers of the county to foot the bill either for finding new schools or for any extra travel costs resulting from pupils having to change schools.

Hopefully, the academy chain discussed this closure with both the Education Funding Agency and their Regional Commissioner and explored whether it was worth keeping the school open with additional grant funding until pupil numbers increased again.

This episode, along with the Cuckoo Hall Academy Trust revelations chronicled in a previous post confirm my belief that the next government must sort out governance arrangements once and for all so that there is an overall body responsible for place planning and the effective use of resources across the school estate. I would like it to be the role of local authorities, but it doesn’t have to be if the government at Westminster decides otherwise. But, the present muddle cannot be allowed to last. Unstitching the grant payment for pupils that transfer to secondary schools that are not academies and operate on a different financial year will be just one more headache for officers to deal with.

One thing the DfE and EFA along with the regional commissioners must now do is set a timetable for academies and free school to notify the authorities each year if they are considering closure because of lack of numbers, or indeed for any other foreseeable reason.