More National Schools

It seems as if the government has decided that the next wave of free schools are going to be created in the worst-performing areas of England, particularly the North East. Officials are apparently to establish the next wave of about 35 new schools in the bottom third of lowest-performing areas, according to the BBC. Since this is a part of England where pupil rolls are generally either static or not rising as much as elsewhere, such a move will have a disproportionate effect on the budgets of other schools now that there is a common funding formula. I am sure that the DfE will take this factor into account in their planning.

In the past few weeks there have been a number of parliamentary questions about both free schools and academies. The government revealed that between 2013/14 and 2017/18 eight free schools had closed and another will close in the summer of 2018. Interestingly, one of the early closures, The Durham Free School, was located in the North East, where the government is now looking to create their new wave of such schools.

Alongside the closed free schools, there are 14 academy sponsors that to use the DfE jargon are ‘paused’. According to the Minister in an answer to a parliamentary question, an academy sponsor is paused if any or all of the following conditions exist:

  • significant concerns with educational impact;
  • serious financial concerns, for example where the Education and Skills Funding Agency has issued a financial notice to improve due to financial non-compliance, breaches of funding agreements; and/or
  • serious concerns about the leadership or governance of the sponsor, which may include due diligence and counter extremism issues.

Academy sponsors remain on pause unless and until the concerns that led to them being paused have been resolved. Just because a sponsor is not on pause does not mean it is automatically allowed to take on more schools. A rigorous process is followed for all sponsorship decisions.                                                                              Answer to PQ 146287

Even though a sponsor has to meet one, two or all of these tests, it seems likely that the outcome may be at the discretion of the Regional School Commissioner. In my view there should be a clear national policy on how these tests are applied, including for faith schools and their diocesan sponsors.

The government has also released the details of the number of academies that have been re-brokered since 2013-14. (Note not 2013/14) In total, 332 academies have moved Trusts during the period 2013/14 to 2016/17, with some more no doubt since then. As the number of academies has increased, and many schools either became academies or at  least started the process of doing so during the period when Mr Gove was Secretary of State, so the number moving Trusts has increased, from just 15 schools in 2013-14 to 165 in 2016-17. The PQ didn’t state the cost of the exercise and how many other schools might be stranded in limbo awaiting a new sponsor.

The governance arrangements for schools across England is now a mess. Schools that stay with a local authority know that they might have a new group of politicians in charge after an election, but in most cases the same group of officers will be in place; although the disruption to schools in Northamptonshire following the collapse of the County Council reminds us what is possible. However, schools joining a MAT can suddenly find their central services provided miles away from a group of staff they have no connections to and that may not understand their concerns. Such schools have no way out and no appeal mechanism against being moved or even traded between Trusts.

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Missing the point

For the past year I have been drawing attention to the fact that children taken into care during the school year and then placed away from home may well have to change schools at short notice and mid-year. In many cases, schools asked to admit these young people recognise that the Admissions Code provides for priority for looked after children during the admissions round. However, in some cases, schools take an entirely opposite approach to in-year requests for a place and do everything to stall an admission.

Yesterday in parliament, my MP asked a question about this issue:Layla Moran (Oxford West and Abingdon) (LD)​

Looked-after children in Oxfordshire could have to wait for up to six months to get into the secondary school that they need to, primarily because local authorities do not have the directive powers over academies that they do over maintained schools. What is the Minister doing to ensure that the most vulnerable children do not miss a day of school?

Here is the Minister’s response
Nadhim Zahawi

Those most disadvantaged children, to whom the hon. Lady referred, are actually given priority during the admissions process.

https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2018-05-14/debates/28B7B87C-B33B-4B69-B2D5-16AF519F3309/OralAnswersToQuestions

The exchange shows how it is necessary to be very precise when wording parliamentary questions, as indeed journalists tell me that it does when wording Freedom of Information requests. The Minister is technically correct, but that answer seems to apply more to the normal admission round for the start of the school year than to casual admissions in-year, as happens when a child is taken into care.

The DfE does need to address this issue. I would ask readers to check what is happening in their locality. Are there children in care being tutored away from schools because a school place cannot be found? How closely is the local authority monitoring this issue and what are the large children’s charities doing about the matter?

It is tough being taken into care and, as the admissions code recognises, we should be ensuring priority in the education of these young people at any time of the year. This includes continuity of provision.

I recognise that there are some areas of the country where there are large numbers of such children being placed and so of these are areas in selective systems further reducing the option of schools that can be approached. Should we offer more boarding school places for such children rather than trying to find foster families or is that too much like returning to institutional care – they is still the issue of how to handle school holidays in those cases.

Being taken into care presents a big risk to the education of a young person. At least trying to ensure that they can be found a school place quickly and that schools recognise the need to transition these newcomers into school life effectively and with sympathy is the least we should ask of a civilised society. Please do not allow these children to be forgotten.