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