I think one of the most important functions of a Local Authority (Cornwall Council) is to educate its children to a high standard. I don’t think anyone could argue against that. The LA should always strive to make sure that happens. Today at County Hall the Children’s, Schools and Families Scrutiny Committee met. On the Agenda was the topic of Academies. Click HERE for the report.
Academies are the latest Government initiative on schools, and how they are run. In a nutshell, if a school passes the test to become one, it gets all its funding direct from central Government. To qualify a school must have an outstanding OFSTED report. It then can apply and if successful, it can then become an Academy. The school is then totally independent of the LA. It is in real terms a limited company, and is responsible for everything.
Now you could argue that this is great. The school can now get on with educating its children to how the Head and the Governors direct. At present it has to follow the National Curriculum, but this could change as the Government is looking at options of allowing the school to take on other education methods like the baccalaureate for one. Again, you could argue that the current curriculum is not perfect, but is anything?
It’s when you get down to the details that for me alarm bells start to ring. At present if you have a problem with any aspect of a school you contact the Council. It will normally respond with answers. If you are not happy with that, then you can contact your local Councillor who can take up your case. In an Academy you don’t complain to the Council or a Councillor, but a department in Whitehall. Yep, that’s London. Hardly a close and direct method. In fact, the whole safeguarding issue is a serious concern because the LA cannot intervene at any stage.
If a school offers a certain service it can normally buy it in with a corporate price as the LA will be able to purchase it Cornwall wide at a better price. Not if you are an Academy. You have to buy it in as an individual. So there is a real danger that to get a licence/service it will cost a lot more.
Let’s get on to the subject of staff pay and pensions. At present they are employed by the LA. The pensions are also paid into the corporate pot. Not if you are an Academy. The Academy is responsible for that as well. For example, if a TA works at an Academy for 10 years and wishes to switch to a LA school then the current accrued pension can’t be transferred. Unlike if you transferred between LA schools your pension is still in the LA pot. As for pay, at present a head in a LA controlled school can within reason set pay. In an Academy school the Board of Governors and Head sets it completely. That could be higher or much lower than you would get in a LA school. Will that attract the right staff?
I could go on about the pitfalls because the more I read, the more concerned I became with some massive potential problems. When the Committee quizzed senior officers about the Academies. They did not have the answers. Why? Well, because a lot of the details have not been finalised by the Government and are still being ‘looked’ into. Now that really concerned me. Not as a Councillor, but as a parent.
If more schools decide to go down the Academy route this will mean more money goes out of the LA pot. The LA completely loses that funding. There is a real danger if more leave then those school left that don’t have the outstanding OFSTED report are going to have to fight for less money. If there is less money then how do we afford to fund the remaining schools? If that happens, then I can see schools closing and amalgamating because the LA just could not afford to run all the schools.
The LA can do nothing. Because it’s been passed by Government. It was passed by Government in 11 weeks. In Government time terms that is light-speed. I really am worried that we are going to get a two tier education system. Do parents have a say in this matter? This next paragraph is surely going to reassure you
However, whether or not a school becomes an Academy (if the application is approved) is ultimately decision for the school’s governing body. Aside from the formal TUPE consultation with staff transferring to the employment of the new Academy Trust, the Government’s initial guidance suggested that there was no statutory requirement to consult parents, pupils and other interested parties, although the governing body would wish to keep them informed. This was, however, amended during the progress of the Bill and the Act places a duty on governing bodies to ‘consult those persons whom they think appropriate before entering into funding arrangements with the Secretary of State. This guidance really assured me (I am being sarcastic) if my sons school decided to go down this route.
I am not saying there are no benefits to this new system, but for me and most of those who sit on this Committee there is a real worry that this system has not really been thought though fully and ‘rushed’. In Cornwall there is only one school who have become an Academy. I really hope is works out for them. I yet remain unconvinced if it will indeed work.