'Are MATs and ministers really best-placed to decide on the closures of local schools? No'

15th July 2017 at 14:02
Multi-academy trusts are influencing fatal decisions about schools hundreds of miles away from them, and yet hold no local accountability, writes a veteran investigative journalist

Should organisations with no formal links to local communities be taking decisions of fundamental importance to those communities, such as whether its school stays open or closes?

I think the clear answer to the above is "no". Yet, under the academies programme, multi-academy trusts (MATs) get to agree school closures with the Department for Education with, staggeringly I think, local people having no meaningful channels of influence on the decision.

Several cases are currently ongoing. In the Wirral, on Merseyside, it has been reported that Kingsway Academy, a secondary with spare places, has been described as “unviable” by the MAT running it, Liverpool-based Northern Schools, because of a combination of “crippling” PFI costs and low numbers of older pupils.

The school is reportedly now being lined up for closure. Northern said that although it had been “party to the discussions regarding the strategic options, and presented possible outcomes,” ultimately the decision would rest with the secretary of state, Justine Greening.

Northern also runs one other secondary school, two university technical colleges and a studio school.

On the Isle of Wight, England’s largest chain, the Academies Enterprise Trust, based in King’s Cross, central London, has been under fire for plans to “merge” 1,100 pupil-Sandown Bay Academy with Ryde Academy. In practice, this means that, from September 2018, Sandown pupils would have to travel seven miles to attend the Ryde school.

A local paper reported AET as saying, in a statement, that falling school rolls have “a direct impact on schools’ finances, when they are already struggling in a difficult funding climate nationally for education".

“[This] is further exacerbated in the case of Sandown Bay, which has been running a significant deficit...We believe that merger offer the best option all round,” it added.

In response, five local councillors backed a motion calling for AET to be banned from operating any school on the island.

Another school, tiny St Martin-in-Meneage primary in Cornwall, has seen the directors of its multi-academy trust applying to the DfE for it to close. Both the parish council and the local MP are reportedly protesting, seemingly to no avail.

Finally, there is the case of Easton Garford primary school outside the town of Stamford in rural Lincolnshire. This very small school faces what campaigners fear is closure, with pupils having to be bussed to another school, six miles away on the other side of town, for at least some lessons from September.

The school is run by the Northampton-based Peterborough Diocese Education Trust, which operates 20 church school academies. The school is facing an in-year deficit of £48,024, the trust said in a letter to parents, and a potential “cumulative deficit” of £350,000 in five years’ time. The letter also warned that pupil numbers could fall from a projected 28 in 2017-18 to just 18 by 2021-22.

I have not fully investigated the details in any of these cases, and clearly there are financial pressures, especially on small schools, though it seems surprising that a 1,100-pupil secondary cannot continue operating.

Before academies, local authorities had to take decisions on whether or not to keep schools open. Sometimes tough choices had to be made, even if, as was generally the case, they were unpopular with parents.

Impact on the local community

Yet what strikes me in these cases is that neither of the bodies with meaningful input into the process – the academy trust or the Department for Education – is subject to any local accountability. Where once a local authority had to answer to a local electorate over a closure decision, no DfE minister will ever face any local comeback unless he or she happens to be the constituency MP.

The only partial element of even vaguely “local democracy” in England’s new academies structure is that portion of each regional headteacher board which goes to elected academy heads. But, as Tes documented superbly on Friday, this amounts to only the “trappings of democracy”, with virtually no transparency on decision-making, massive regions to cover and teachers, parents, governors, pupils and wider taxpayers excluded.

Some might say all of the above closure decisions would still be subject to public consultation. But that’s only, in reality, after the decisions would have been taken.

There is another dimension. Wheras local authorities are at least notionally set up to act in the best interests of a community across a range of services, academy trusts are by their nature only established to focus on education. Indeed, it is more specific than that: they are organised institutionally to focus only on the education provided by their schools.

So when someone commented, below the petition to “save” Easton Garford which has drawn nearly 300 signatures, that “a viable school is essential in keeping a village healthy and alive”, of course she had a point. Schools are focal points of communities, with the importance of that often going far beyond the lessons they offer their pupils.

But this is not a consideration that MATs are set up to take into account.

With pressures on school budgets now huge, I can see school closures only growing as an issue in the coming years. Are MATs, ministers or their agents, the regional schools commissioners, best-placed to preside over what can be a traumatic set of changes for local people?

Of course not. But did anyone really think this through when the academies policy was, first, set up under Labour as a programme for a small number of mainly already-struggling inner-city secondaries or, second, expanded with “rocket blasters” by the super-political former education secretary, Michael Gove?

Again, the answer must surely be “no”. 

This seems to be another example – freedom over admissions, over headteacher/chief executive pay and over friends running MATs would be others – of bad design in the way England’s over-politicised, too-hastily-implemented academies reforms have been set up. The consequences of this will continue to roll out over many years.

Warwick Mansell is a freelance education journalist and author of Education by Numbers. You can read his back catalogue here. He tweets @warwickmansell

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