Friday, 28 May 2010

Are Academies the Answer ?

One of the more radical policies of the new coalition Government announced this week is the proposal to allow schools to leave Local Education Authority (LEA) control and become wholly State-supported bodies able to draw on both Government and private funding sources. The very best schools would also be able to avoid Ofsted inspections as well.

Putting the politics to one side, the proposals are likely to have a huge impact on a number of local authorities. For some, the schools estate represents by value up to 85% of the authority’s entire property portfolio. The “loss” of that value of asset would be catastrophic for the viability of the authority and would question the continued viability of the two-tier system in many parts of England.

Let’s look at the practical impact of what is being proposed. Currently, schools within the LEA may be owned by the LEA or possibly by a Diocesan body or possibly by a Trust (known as a Foundation School). Whatever their ownership, all schools exist under the LEA banner and are funded or helped by the LEA. In most instances, the LEA pays the running costs and many schools are maintained by the LEA.

The maintenance of school buildings deserves a mention – when a number of schools opted out of the LEA system and became “Grant Maintained” in the early 1990s, they accepted State money instead of LEA funds and this was fine for a while but the Government money began to dry up and when the schools came back to the LEA after the Labour election victory in 1997, the LEA discovered that the schools had in many cases done nothing to improve the fabric but had spent the money on books and teachers. The latter are all well and good but the failure to maintain school buildings adequately left a legacy of hundreds of thousands of pounds of backlog maintenance which the LEA had to try to address.

The other problem is that the piecemeal funding of schools meant that schools never got enough to do the big jobs such as replace boilers and repair roofs. The LEA serves a useful function in being able to pool monies to carry out the large-scale tasks. In effect, most schools see little or no maintenance in any given year but some will get a major project (usually during the summer holidays). Some LEAs even pool the Delegated Formula Capital (DFC) funding in order to fund major projects such as extensions and rebuilds.

Individual schools with small pots of money won’t be able to carry out the large-scale maintenance tasks so there will be consolidation within the academy structure. This will happen in one of two ways – either a single private company will come in and take over the running of a number of schools and will effectively do what the LEA does or schools will form into “clusters” where a secondary school will take on the running of a clutch of satellite primary schools and admit pupils from these schools only.

Indeed, if schools become academies on a considerable scale, questions may be asked about the viability of the current two-tier local Government structure in England.

For a local authority employing 25,000 people, the loss of the schools will translate to a reduction in headcount to around 3,000 so that’s the emasculation of authorities like Kent, Hampshire, Surrey and Essex.

In many ways Michael Gove’s plans are far more radical and revolutionary than anything envisaged by previous local Government organisations and while the concept of taking schools out of LEA control is understandably attractive, I have another concern.

In the Academy system, the Board of Governors of a school will have considerable power. It’s known that in opposition, the Conservatives saw school Governing bodies as a way of keeping their hands on the levers of power even if Labour or the Liberal Democrats swept the Conservatives off Councils. Indeed, the plan was explicitly to stuff school governing bodies with Conservative supporters and activists to ensure schools followed the Tory agenda into the future.

In other areas, we see a commitment to local accountability but will we see the same in our schools ? Will we see annual elections to school governing bodies encompassing local communities and ensuring a properly representative and accountable system of school control ?

I’m not convinced – behind the veneer of Gove’s plan is an insidious and dangerous attempt to subvert local democracies and communities.

Questions need to be asked of Gove as to what he is really planning.

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