Clegg: councils at centre of academies revolution

9th September 2011 at 01:00
But critics say plan reveals `huge conflict' within the Coalition over schools' freedom from LA control

Deputy prime minister Nick Clegg is attempting to hand fresh powers to local authorities over the rapidly expanding number of schools converting to academy status.

Councils should be responsible for standards at schools not under their direct control, make decisions about who runs them, and hold providers "more sharply to account", the Liberal Democrat leader has announced.

The move would mark a significant shift in policy for the academies programme, which has championed the independence of schools freed of the influence of local authorities.

A source close to education secretary Michael Gove agreed that councils needed to be given a new role in education. Figures show more than 1,300 schools are now academies.

Mr Clegg, speaking at Southfields Community College in south-west London this week, said he wanted local authorities to start their revamped role next year.

"The Government wants all schools, over time, to have the opportunity to be autonomous, with academy freedoms. Both Liberal Democrats and Conservatives promised that in our manifestos," he said.

"But we do not want that to lead to mass centralisation of the schools system. Far from it: as academies become more commonplace, and eventually the norm, we will make sure people do not lose their voice over what local schools provide."

Mr Clegg said the Government would develop a "new role and relationship between schools, central and local government".

"Where there are no schools the local authority `owns' any more, there should be no barrier to the local authority working in a new relationship with academies, in partnership with central government."

But David Carter, executive principal of the Cabot Learning Federation, a group of five sponsored academies in the Greater Bristol area, said he did not support the policy.

"If I was a headteacher of an outstanding school who had just sought independence and autonomy, to go back to the idea of the local authority holding me to account would seem like going backwards, not forwards," he said.

James Groves, head of education at Policy Exchange, a think-tank with strong links to the Conservative party, said local authorities should only have a role in providing services, not commissioning places.

"We are now past the point where we can give local authorities stronger powers over schools. The policy of the Government over the past year has been to give them more autonomy," he said.

Martin Johnson, deputy general secretary of teaching union the ATL, said Mr Clegg's comments highlighted "huge conflicts" within the Coalition.

"Clegg says local authorities could hold academies and free schools more sharply to account, but Conservative ministers say that school autonomy is fundamental to the academy programme," Mr Johnson said. "It is not possible to have both."

In opposition, the Liberal Democrats' policy was to abolish the academies programme. Instead the party backed sponsor-managed schools, which would have been commissioned by the local authority, and a devolution of power over such schools away from central government to the local authority.

Mr Gove has asked an advisory group of local authority officers and academy heads to consider what role should be given to councils.

The group has told him that councils must be able to intervene in the running of academies - for example, to trigger inspections if they think there are problems.

David Pugh, leader of Isle of Wight Council and a member of the group, supported councils having responsibility for academies "because there will be no conflict of interest - they will not be funding them".

A Department for Education spokesman said ministers would discuss Mr Clegg's policy over the next few weeks and that more details would be announced "in due course".

Original headline: Clegg bids to place councils at centre of academies revolution

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