Free schools 'threaten viability' of good schools
The government’s education reforms are threatening the viability of schools that are successful and meet specific local needs, according to a research project commissioned by the Department for Education.
A report by consultants Isos Partnership, produced for the department, found two examples of well-performing or specialist schools whose viability was being threatened by the opening of free schools.
The report, which was co-funded by the LGA, said councils were struggling in cases where free schools were set up alongside good schools. It said the free schools also threatened those that, if closed, would “leave a particular community without a local school,” or would have to be reopened within a few years because of demographic change.
“Far from being a hypothetical case, the eight local authorities involved in the research have yielded two instances where this is already happening,” it said. “Both these examples are where new free schools are opening and creating a significant new influx of places.”
Stephen Castle (Con), cabinet member for education at Essex CC and a member of the DfE’s ministerial advisory group on the role of councils in education, told LGC: “If there is too much capacity in an area, schools will have to close, and this becomes difficult when all the schools are equally popular. But the alternative is that they all struggle on with half their places unfilled, and that is not fair on the pupils.”
The report was based on in-depth studies of local authorities in Bolton, Bristol, Gloucestershire, Hertfordshire, Middlesbrough, Oxfordshire, Thurrock, Warwickshire and Westminster. Westminster City Council dropped out after the first phase of the research.
It also called on the Department for Education to introduce a system of scrutiny for stand-alone convertor academies, warning there was “real concern” within local authorities because there was no guarantee that poor performance in these schools would be addressed.
It said the problem “did not appear to be amenable to locally developed solutions” and was likely to become a bigger issue in future.
“At present it is likely that there are significantly fewer than 100 stand-alone convertor academies nationally that are at imminent risk of poor or declining performance,” it said. “However, the government’s ambition is that in future there might be ten times as many academies in the system. At that sort of scale the potential risk could be much greater.”
Cllr Castle said the issue of failing stand-alone academies was one of his main concerns. “For me this is the real challenge, and it is an example of where things can really go wrong,” he said. “Those that are failing tend to pull the shutters up when you try to approach them.
“I’m interested in councils being able to challenge these schools, or ultimately having the duty to intervene and commission the organisation that can close them, if the department agrees that they should close.”
The report also revealed anxiety about councils’ ability to support and challenge their maintained schools. “This is certainly a risk that was flagged by some of the headteachers who participated in the research whose perception was that local authority school improvement teams had been stripped back to the core and that, in the process, some long-standing expertise had been lost,” it said.
“Schools are concerned that the role of the local authority could end up being too consumed in fire-fighting and picking up the jobs that others in the system are not prepared to do.”
Cllr Castle said he had spoken to Mr Gove, and believed he was broadly sympathetic to his concerns. “The secretary of state has made it really clear that he wants to work with local authorities, not against them,” he said. “I think he absolutely understands the role of the local authority as a champion, an advocate and a commissioner on behalf of local people.”
The DfE said in a statement: “If a school becomes more attractive to parents as a result of becoming an academy, this can only benefit a local area by giving parents a choice of good schools. A number of local authorities are working creatively with schools in their area to ensure that there are school places available to meet the needs of local parents.”