Cornwall Council opposes the Government plan to force all schools to become Academies

Today, at Cornwall Council’s Full Council meeting, Councillors debated a Motion on the principle of the Government’s plan to force all schools to become academies by 2020. This motion was proposed by Tim Dwelly, seconded by myself, and supported by a group of cross-party Councillors which include Councillors Atherton, German, Kenny, Kirk, Long, Andrew Mitchell, Olivier, Hanna Toms, James and Frank.

The motion is as follows:

  • This Council disagrees with the Government’s plans to force all schools to become academies. It also notes widespread opposition to this proposal among parents and education professionals;
  • The Council welcomes the excellent work Cornwall’s schools in who are working co-operatively and believes some small schools will struggle to survive if such a system is imposed as proposed in the White Paper;
  • This Council believes that transferring supervision of all Cornish schools to Whitehall is centralisation and is at odds with the Cornwall Deal agreed with government;
  • This Council is also opposed with the proposal to remove the valuable role of parent governors from the schools governance structure;
  • The Council against the forced transfer of council-owned assets and land to Whitehall;
  • It resolves to ask the Secretary of State for Education to allow Cornwall’s schools and their parents to decide for themselves whether they wish to remain with the local education authority or become academies.

I seconded this motion on the principle of the Government forcing schools to convert is based on a seriously flawed White Paper. The government say changing the legal administrative status of a school will improve standards is not backed-up by evidence.

Furthermore, the White Paper allows Academy Trusts no longer be required to reserve placed for parent governors on their governor boards. These governors play a very important role (as do all governors) in a school structure. This is a retrograde step, and again has no evidence to back up the justification this role to be removed.

I also have a serious concern over the lack of accountability in the White Paper proposals. Accountability is an important part of the educational system. With LA schools, parent have a direct mans of raising issues after they have exhausted talking to the head teacher and governors. In the academy system, parents concerns are dealt via the Regional Schools Commissioner, and then the DFE. This was highlighted in the recent All Party Parliamentary Group report on the role of the Regional Schools Commissioner.

After a debate, the a staggering 95 Councillors voted in favour of the motion of opposing the Governments place to force schools to convert to academies, with three Councillors voting again and one abstaining.

To put the icing on the cake, both the Leader, Deputy Leader, Cornwall Council Chairman and vice, all the Council’s Cabinet voted in favour to oppose the Governments plans

This sends a clear message to the Government about its plan to force schools to convert, rather than leave it to parent and governors who know their school and what is best for the young people who attend.

Government’s Academy White Paper is flawed, lacks accountability and will not improve standards

It has been a few weeks since the Conservative Government launched the White Paper which sets out its ‘vision’ for education in England. Basically the White Paper sets out the timeline for the end of the Local Education Authority.

In that time, I have read, re-read that document to understand the fundamental changes to England’s educational system if the White Paper gets adopted into legislation. I need to be clear the following words are my personal views, and NOT those of Cornwall Council.

If the Government gets its way – and that is far from certain– all non-academy schools will be required to start the process of converting to an Academy by 2020. This means that by 2022 all schools in England – both primary and secondary – will be academies (or Free Schools).

As a result the only responsibilities a local authority will be left with will be:

1. Ensuring every child has a school place, including making sure there are sufficient school, special school and AP places to meet local demand. Local authorities will also work with schools and parents in developing local school transport policies, giving schools the opportunity to provide these services where it makes sense locally.

2. Ensuring the needs of vulnerable learners are met by identifying and making provision for children with SEND or with looked after status. Local authorities will also promote school attendance, tackle persistent absences and lead on safeguarding responsibilities for all children excluded or otherwise unable to attend mainstream school e.g. those educated at home.

3. Acting as champions for all parents’ families by supporting them to navigate the system through a continued role in admissions.

However it is not only local authorities which are affected, other parts of the educational system will also be impacted by this change, including teachers and school governors.

Academy trusts will no longer be required to reserve places for elected parents on governing boards. Furthermore, schools in Multi Academy Trusts (MATs) are likely not to have individual governing boards. Instead there will be one governing board for the whole trust, with individual schools having ‘local advisory boards’ which will feed into the main governing MAT board.

The Government also plans to establish a database of everyone involved in governance; they intend to legislate so that “unsuitable individuals” can be barred from being governors of maintained schools. I am not sure what is defined as ‘unsuitable’.

The Government are also intending to implement plans to replace the current Qualified Teacher Status. This new accreditation will be based on a teacher’s effectiveness in the classroom, as judged by great schools. The Government will also reform the National College for Teaching and Leadership and will establish a College of Teaching.

As I said before, the Government is far from certain in getting its way over these reforms, as this White Paper is not legislation. The changes outlined in the paper will need Parliamentary legislation. That means MP’s will have to vote to support or oppose it. And, with the Tory Government having a majority of around 12, it doesn’t take a maths teacher to work out that the legislation may not get through – at least in its current form.  

Before this White Paper, schools converted to an academy in two ways; – either by choice, or by DfE regulations as laid out in the statutory guidance.  

In my three years as the Lead Member/Cabinet Member for Children’s Services  I have not met a single teacher, or head-teacher who does not want the best for the children in their care.  These professionals are from both LA and academy schools. As others have said, this White Paper is seriously flawed. Forcing all schools to convert because the Government says it will improve standards is utter-poppycock. There is no evidence to back up the claim that this will improve standards in schools. This is about ideology, not standards. To reinforce this even more strongly – in many recent Ofsted inspections, the LA has been praised for its help in improving a school.

I also have serious concerns over the lack of accountability in these proposals. Accountability is an important part of the educational system. With LA schools, parents have a direct means of raising issues after they have exhausted talking to the head and governors. In the academy system, parents concerns are dealt with via the Regional Schools Commissioner, and then the DfE. This was highlighted in the recent All Party Parliamentary Group report on the role of the Regional Schools Commissioner. I have often received correspondence from parents who are unhappy with what is happening the academy attended by their child. In these cases I can only respond by saying I am sorry, but there is little the LA can do because the school is an academy, please contact…

I am not saying the LA is perfect either. Some schools converted to an academy because they felt frustrated by the LA. However in the new world, parents will have to deal with an office that either based in Bristol, or London- not in Cornwall.  

To be clear, I am not saying by being an academy is a bad thing.  The Local Authority works with the DfE to ensure that whatever decisions are made by governing bodies, they are founded upon the need to ensure that they are always in the best interests of the children which they serve. Many schools have successfully converted to become academies because this was in the interest of the pupils. You cannot fault this. However these schools chose to convert. It is a huge difference from the Government’s aim of converting all schools to Academy status – potentially against the  wishes of parents, governors and heads.

Parents and schools should have the choice about the governance arrangements in their school,  it should not be about political party ideology. Education is about giving a child the best possible start in life, and as Lead Member, I will do all I can to make sure we achieve that goal

 

The beginning of the end for maintained schools as all will be academies by 2022

The government will be announcing as part of the Chancellors Budget Statement that all schools in England will be academies by 2022. I have to say this is not new news, as the Government has been very clear with its direction of travel for schools for sometime.

However, until today’s announcement, whilst the government may have wished for all schools to become academies, it did not have the legislative powers to do this. Until now schools either converted by their own choice, or were forced to because of poor Ofsted inspections.

For Cornwall, there has not been this mass-conversation seen in other areas of England. The percentages of all pupils in academy schools going back to February 2014 (using the Jan 2013 school census headcount) was 42%, or in actual numbers 29,377. In March 2016 (using the Jan 2014 school census headcount) this had risen to 55% or 39,041 pupils. Not a massive rise in conversations really.

If you look at it in more detail – using the same dates as in the previous paragraph – in 2014, 74 schools were academies. In March 2016, there are now 124. Not even half of our schools (273 schools in total) are academies.

For secondary schools, which there are 32 in total, 16 were academy schools in 2014, and now it is 18. (17,423 pupils in 2014, 18,335 in 2016. A rise of 8% in total numbers).

For primary schools, again using the same periods, in 2014 there were 57 schools that were academies. Now there are 105. An almost doubling of conversions. Breaking this down further, in 2014 11,843 pupils or 31% were in academies, by 2016, it was 20,602, or 51%.

Now the government wants to force those who saw no merit in converting to become an academy school. Though as always with the Government, the devil will be in the detail on how this will be managed. And as normal, the government makes the grand announcement and then sometime later, we get the detail.

We in the LEA (Local Education Authority – basically the Council) know our powers over schools have been slowly removed since the 1990’s. These powers are set to be reduced further to maybe one or two responsibilities. Again, the government has announced this, but gave no further details on which powers will remain with the LEA. My educated guess the areas will be left will be school transport, school admissions and SEN provision.

It might seem strange, but at present the LEA remains responsible for educational standards in all schools, but has no powers over improvements on the academy schools. We think tomorrow’s expected ‘white paper’ will spell out the changes to the LA’s responsibilities.

I am also worried one government department will have direct responsiblity for so many schools. They will now be responsible for so many functions for all the schools in England. I know the government have created the Regional Schools Commissioners, but still, all this responsibility rests with the DfE. Which I feel is a rather remote government department to the rest of the world.

Previously, the government said all schools to convert by 2020, but now they are saying 2022. Two reasons for this is because there is insufficient capacity for the DfE to handle this mass-conversion, and secondly, because the government wants schools to be in academy chains, at present there are not enough, and many of those chains are not what I would politely say, in a fit state.

Furthermore, if you read between the lines and look at the announcement a few weeks ago on school funding, this review of the funding formula has slipped right from 2017 to 2020. I can bet any school who will now be forced to convert will have a conversation about funding.

However, for me, we should be really concentrating on what actually happens in a school with the most important issue is the young people’s educational journey and how they can achieve their full potential. It should not be how a school is administratively governed.

Today starts the final days of the LEA’s involvement in schools. Ironically, it was a Tory government in 1902, which started the LA’s involvement in schools. Now it will be this government that will virtually end the LEA’s role in education by 2022.

State-funded (Academy and LA) Schools in Cornwall

I thought it would be interesting for people to know the types and numbers of state-funded schools in Cornwall. This includes the pupil population taught under the different state-funded set-ups in Cornwall. I have the portfolio which education comes under, and for me there is no difference in school type; as long as those young people who attend these schools are getting the very best education.

In total there are 272 schools in Cornwall. This is made up of 32 secondary which includes one Free School; 236 primary schools; and four special schools.

From this 272 schools 73* (27%) of them are academies. Out of this 73 schools, 16 (50%) are secondary including one Free School, 57 (24%) are primary and one (25%) special school. These figure do not include those who are in the process of academy conversion.

The total pupil population that are currently being taught under the academy system is 29,377 (42%); or if you like 58% are in LA maintained schools. This is broken down further with the number of pupils being taught under the academy system in for the following: 

  • Primary 11,843 (31% of total pupils);
  • Secondary 17,423 (56% of total pupils);
  • Special Schools 111 (30% of total pupils)

You might not know this, but all academy conversions are carried out on the first of each month.

*(Figures are correct as of 1st Jan 2014 – and I have rounded the percentages)

The March of Academy Schools in Cornwall

The number of academy schools in Cornwall has reached 50 (18% of schools). This either by the school taking on the lead and converting, or schools having to convert due to Ofsted. I can see the conversion rate rising due to the changes in Ofsted inspections.

Out of the 50* schools which are now converted the split is as follows:

  • 34 primary (includes infant and junior) which equates to 14% of this school type
  • 15 secondary which equates to 48% of secondary schools
  • The actual number of children who are being educated under the academy system is as follows:

  • Primary – 8416 pupils (22%)
  • Secondary – 17,339 pupils (58%)
  • This makes the total number of our children and young people in the academy education system to be 25,886 which is 37% of all pupils.

    * Not including the PRUs (short stay) and includes one special school

    Getting Your Child into a School

    For any parent (which I am) sending your child to school for the first time is a big event, not only for a child, but also for the parent. Any parent wants the best for their child and picking the right school is important. Luckily, in Cornwall we have good schools, and there are no major issues in any of our schools.
    This is reflected in the first choice placements for children in our schools. For secondary school out of a total of 5125 applications 99.4% got their first preference. There were five appeals, two were upheld, with three refused. This result has placed Cornwall Council second in the ranking of Local Authorities in England for placements. 
    For primary schools there were 4955 applications which 92.8% were offered their first choice preference. However, there have been 219 appeals submitted for admission. Of the 111 appeals which have been held, 32 have been upheld and 79 refused. Again this is a good result, but slightly down on last years figures of 96%.
    Now for my worry, Academies. I highlighted a few concerns I have with Academies in a previous blog, but a bigger concern I have is with admissions to these Academies. In an Academy school the school’s governing body is the admissions authority and sets the admissions policy and over-subscription criteria. Academies, as independent schools, must agree their admissions policies with the Secretary of State – Are alarm bells ringing yet?
    As more and more schools become Academies it will be necessary to maintain close communication between them and the Local Authority in order to maintain a sufficient supply of school places and a fair and equitable admissions scheme.  A new draft Admissions Code has recently been published by the government and is currently being consulted on; Cornwall Council will submit its response during August.
    This is all fine and dandy, but what happen if an Academy becomes more ‘selective’ in pupil admission? I am not saying this will happen, but it could very easily, especially as the Local Authority no longer has direct control. For some parents an Academy might be interpreted as better school (which is not the case) and the demand for a place could be high. Will there be a temptation of taking those from a more fortunate background? 
    If the Local Authority suspects this is happening then is can raise their concern with the Sec of State, Mr Gove (at time of writing). The LA might also be able to call in an Ofsted inspection. Is this really good enough? I think you know the answer to that.
    Maybe the Government has thought of  stopping Academies being more selective in their admissions by raising the amount paid in the pupil premium. Pupil premium is the extra money a school gets for every child that is entitled to a free school meal. Currently it is £400, but is set to rise. Could this be the incentive a school needs to take in children for less fortunate backgrounds? It could be a big influence as Academies are in charge of their own budgets just like a business would be.
    You can see why I have grave reservations with Academies.  

    Academies and our Children

    The scrutiny committee of Children, Education and Families covers a lot of areas and issues as the title suggests. One of the areas discussed at today’s meeting was School Academies. Like it or not, since the Academies Bill came into law a school can become one if it meets the standard and the Head and Governors agree (they do not need parents permission). This means once an Academy, it is out of the control of the Local Authority (LA), which is Cornwall Council.
    Academy Schools are State Funded (directly) independent schools. If a school is an Academy it is outside the Local Authority and a separate legal entity. The school premises and land are transferred or leased to the Academy. All staff are directly employed by the Academy.
    Where as Local Authority Maintained School receive their funding direct from the Local Authority (Council), follow the National Curriculum and are regularly inspected by Ofsted. There are four types of school under the LA. These are Community Schools, Foundation and Trust Schools, Voluntary-aided Schools and Voluntary-controlled Schools.
    Putting aside if you think they are a good idea, or bad, I thought I would give you the numbers on how many schools are now Academies, the types of schools which have, and the number of children taken out of directly controlled education. Currently in Cornwall there are 31 Secondary Schools and 236 Primary School that were until recently under the control of the Local Authority.
    On the 11th August there are now 30 less schools that receive their funding direct from the Government. This is further broken-down of 12 Secondary Schools, 14 Primary Schools and 2 Junior Schools. A further nine schools will become Academies by the end of 2011 and a further seven could become Academies in the first quarter of 2012. This of course does not include any further applications.
    This means 19,098 or 28% of our children are currently in education in independent schools.
    This leaves 221 schools under the LA. If these schools all stay, then this is a good number especially when funding is concerned. However, when a school becomes an Academy the LA loses the funding for this school, as it goes straight to the new Academy. The real danger is the more money taken out of the LA schools budget the less there is for the rest. As you see the LA money is shared amongst all the schools, but less money in the pot some schools could be unaffordable to run; this is especially true of the smaller schools that generally get more money per head than the larger schools.
    Personally, I am quite worried about Academies because I fear a two-tiered education system, especially when an Academy will be allowed to set its own curriculum, admission policy and will not be subject to LA inspection. This last point is worrying, because you would have to go via the Sec of State for Education if you have any problem with the school that cannot be solved by the Head, or Governors.