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13.02.17

LGA: Allow best council schools to take over struggling academies

High-performing council-maintained schools should be able to overstep existing “bureaucratic barriers” and take over failing academies, particularly the ‘orphan schools’ who cannot find a sponsor because they are deemed unviable, the LGA has argued.

Given that 91% of council schools are now rated as ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’, council leaders are calling on central government to remove the red tape that forbids local authorities from “playing a direct role in raising education standards and improving life chances”, including by supporting struggling academies.

This could be an especially important protection for beleaguered small rural schools, the LGA stated.

The chair of its Children and Young People board, Cllr Richard Watts, argued that councils have demonstrated that they have both the track record and experience to “help lift schools out of academic failure”.

“The government must commit to removing the unnecessary red tape and give high-performing maintained schools the option of becoming academy sponsors,” he explained. “Councils want to be regarded as improvement partners, not obstructionists to school improvement.

“Hundreds of schools across the country continue to be turned around thanks to the intervention of councils and their ability to support strong leadership, outstanding classroom teaching and appoint effective support for staff and governors.

“This is further upheld by the fact that 70% of academies were previously good or outstanding council maintained schools, refuting the claim that academy performance is poor because they have taken on underperforming maintained schools.”

The LGA has previously raised concerns about the lack of academy sponsors in the country and the role of the eight government-appointed Regional Schools Commissioners (RSCs) in tackling this. It said the commissioners, appointed in 2014 to help hold academies to account, still “lack local knowledge and the capacity to tackle all problems associated with the rising failings of academies” due to the “large, remote and diverse” range of schools under their watch.

“With a shortage of academy sponsors and struggling schools currently in the dark about their future, the simplest remedy is to give councils the power to turn these schools around where this is the best option locally,” added Cllr Watts.

“With RSCs strictly limited to overseeing academic standards, the early warning signs of failing, such as safeguarding concerns or financial problems, risk being overlooked. It is not acceptable that we have to wait for poor exam results, whistleblowing about financial impropriety or an Ofsted inspection to trigger intervention.”

But despite the LGA’s repeated calls for interventionist powers, a Department for Education spokesman insisted that there is no legal framework for a council-run school to sponsor an academy unless they opened a trust. This would, however, mean the school would have to convert to academy status – which is exactly what local authorities have been fighting against.

“We would encourage good or outstanding council-run schools to apply to become a sponsor so they can share their expertise,” the spokesman told the BBC.

However, he added that councils could not run multi-academy trusts since legally “less than 20% of members and trustees are allowed to be ‘local authority influenced’ to ensure the trust remains autonomous from the local authority”.

Despite winning a long-fought battle against the department last year which forced government to climb down on plans to force “backdoor academisation”, the LGA has since been arguing against a proposed cut to the Education Services Grant. According to the association, the government is planning to slash £600m from the grant from August this year, which would likely affect councils’ ability to maintain or improve schools – particularly in county areas.

 

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