Academies want right to run children's services

27th February 2009 at 00:00
Heads speak out in defence of their independence and say they are better placed to respond to their pupils' needs

Academies want radical new powers and extra funding to allow them to enlist social services for vulnerable children.

Heads are calling for responsibility for certain services - including health, youth justice and truancy - to shift from local authorities to groups of schools, which they claim are better placed to respond to children's needs.

The proposal comes after academy principals rejected government plans to compel all schools to co-operate with children's trusts, which were set up following the death of Victoria Climbie to co-ordinate services for young people better. The Independent Academies Association, which represents more than half of academies, criticised the plan this week, saying it was a "further erosion" of academies' freedoms.

In a letter to Jim Knight, the schools minister, the association complains that the academies programme is in jeopardy because schools are "being increasingly hampered by requirements to bow to the whims of quangos and to abide by additional regulations".

The forcefully worded letter, sent by Mike Butler, chairman of the association and principal of Djanogly City Academy in Nottingham, complains that the Government's proposed changes would undermine the programme. As well as children's trusts, the group opposes plans to force academies to co-operate with behaviour partnerships, which ensure that all schools take an equal share of expelled pupils.

The association is against giving power to oversee school performance to the Young People's Learning Agency, which is to be set up next year to manage academies. It is also concerned that academies will not be able to decide independently whether to set up sixth forms in their schools.

"Your proposals ... seriously impact upon the ability of sponsors, governors and principals to lead and manage their institutions effectively and efficiently," the letter says.

According to Mr Butler, many academies already have good relationships with local authorities, but he warns that "forced collaboration" is likely to fail.

Another academy head, who did not want to be named, said that principals were "miffed" and sponsors "exponentially miffed" that they were having to work closely with local authorities that had failed to improve the performance of the academy's predecessor schools.

It is understood that the association wants to see a fundamental shift in the way that some social services are commissioned.

Instead of contributing to discussions at children's trusts meetings, academies want to buy in their own services for vulnerable children.

The idea is that groups of schools, both academies and regular state schools, should determine their own priorities and where to spend funds.

"If you want to achieve real change in children's services, there needs to be a radical re-engineering of the way they work," an association source said.

Groups of schools should be able to commission services, the source said, and early intervention when they could see problems arising would make a crucial difference.

"We don't like to criticise other professions, but social services departments often have fixed mindsets. The answer is to put a lot more of the services in schools."

Last October, the Audit Commission said there was little evidence that children's trusts had improved support for children. Five years after Lord Laming's inquiry into the death of Victoria Climbie, there was confusion about the trusts that was hampering services, the report said.

John Dunford, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said that a minority of heads would welcome the opportunity for more control over social services. But Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, said it would create more problems.

"The idea that you can set up separate providers for children's services is misguided," she said. "You risk increasing bureaucracy and making communication between services worse.

"It is a strange position to take, that you are willing to co-operate with local authorities but only if you can do it separately from them."

Mr Knight said he was surprised to receive the association's letter and that the Government would continue to give academies independence and freedom.

"However, we do believe that children's trusts and behaviour partnerships are both of such importance that we want all schools and academies to be covered by the legislation," he said.

POWERFUL POSITION

Academy sponsors could become increasingly powerful in improving standards by acting as advisers to struggling schools, according to a top former civil servant.

Sir Bruce Liddington, the former schools commissioner who has taken over as the director general of sponsor Edutrust, said that sponsors with chains of schools could help many secondaries.

Edutrust operates one school, with plans to open eight more from September. However some authorities are waiting for the outcome of an investigation into allegations of financial mismanagement at Edutrust.

Sir Bruce said it was right that councils were cautious and that the audit was carried out thoroughly.

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