12th May 2016
‘Another fine mess’
As the smoke gently cleared on 6 May, the day after the mayoral, local government and police and crime commissioner elections, the Secretary of State for Education took the opportunity to make the not unexpected announcement of a change of approach in the relation to the key proposal contained in the White Paper ‘Excellence
Everywhere’ in Education: namely the forced ‘Academisation’ of Local Authority maintained schools.
This was, of course, most emphatically not a U-turn: or so we were told. The Government’s aspiration for all public funded schools to be out of Local Authority ‘control remained, but the requirement for all Councils with Education responsibilities to plan for this eventuality would not reach the statute book. The Secretary of State’s powers of compulsion would be limited to instances of Local Authority failure in capacity or under-performance, Local Authorities where the majority of schools had converted (or been converted), and the existing powers to require conversion of individual Local Authority maintained schools categorised by Ofsted as ‘inadequate’ or ‘requires improvement’.
On the face of it, this was an important victory for Local Government. Contemporaneous with all the sound and fury surrounding Devolution – the passing of powers from central to local government – the White Paper proposals seemed to have confirmed the greatest transfer of responsibility for an existing publicly funded service in the other direction since World War II.
The rationale for this concentration of power, and assets in the person of the Secretary of State, was that it would set schools free from the shackles of Local Authority control, and that, a priori, Academy schools were better than Local Authority schools. In that regard, the White Paper seemed positively Orwellian in its language. Unfortunately, the cheerleading rhetoric for Academy status and reality has some time since parted company. Select Committee reports, a letter from the Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Schools and the recent PWC report have all cast doubt on the
claims made for Academies, and there has been an increasing groundswell of concern about the lack of accountability of Multi-Academy Trust Schools and the pay of senior executives in Academy chains. Ultimately, however, it was not force of argument, but political expediency which caused the abandonment of the proposals for compulsory Academisation. The underlying aspiration to ‘remove’ schools from ‘local authority control remains: ‘…our goal has not changed. There will be no retreat…’.
This means that we may end up with a messier and less-managed retreat, which may be more difficult and expensive for Local Government to handle. The Secretary of State’s announcement raises some important questions, in particular, the extent to which reductions in the Education Support Grant and funding reform of the Direct Schools Grant affects the capacity of Local Authorities to undertake their Education functions, however (or indeed whether) these are redefined in the new legislation. The key concern here is whether Councils will have the funding or the powers to champion and support the vulnerable and the disadvantaged. The announcement also raises the spectre of Local Authorities in rural areas being left with a rump of small rural schools, unwanted by Academy Chains and potentially running significant aggregated budget deficits.
Whatever happens, the White Paper will continue to be a major focus for SOLACE in the months to come!
By Phil Norrey, Chief Executive of Devon County Council and Solace Spokesperson on Children and Families