With the government facing campaigns against failing primary schools being turned into academies, the schools commissioner believes she may have a solution: persuade more FE colleges to sponsor primaries.
Elizabeth Sidwell, the former chief executive of a federation of schools, is responsible for brokering agreements for the sponsors of schools converting to academies. In the wake of objections to the forced takeover of Downhills Primary School in North London by the Harris Federation, she said that colleges could make the academy reforms more acceptable to the public.
Parents' groups described the sacking of the governing body at Downhills and the forced conversion as "privatisation by the back door". Dr Sidwell believes that colleges, as local institutions with a known contribution to education, would meet with a more positive response.
"Colleges are very important in a local area - it's always a key place in a community," she said. "For us, that means they're trusted by the local people, it's a resource that youngsters can use without having to travel too far and they have a commitment to the local area. It's really a good starting base for us and I'm interested in getting the primaries into that if I can.
"If they learn about other chains, many schools are happy with that. But the FE colleges have a head start as a sponsor: they will be known and will be familiar."
Dr Sidwell founded the three-school Haberdashers' Aske's Federation, which took one school to an outstanding inspection grade and took another out of special measures to a good inspection rating. She said that since she had become schools commissioner, she had been impressed by the potential of pioneering colleges sponsoring schools. So far, 25 colleges are approved sponsors, with another three awaiting approval.
Most of these focus on secondary schools, but Barnfield College in Bedfordshire became the first to sponsor a primary free school this year. Dr Sidwell said that she had also been impressed by New College Durham, which works with primary school pupils to introduce them to vocational studies and broaden their understanding of future career paths.
She said that colleges have advantages as primary school sponsors that go beyond their ability to reassure parents. "They also have the resources. They have central services, human resources, facilities and finance," she said. "For them to be able to spin that out to the schools they may sponsor is wonderful, because it means they are getting economies of scale in their central services and the schools get to benefit."
While they lack experience with the youngest pupils, Dr Sidwell said, colleges' expertise in dealing with students who have become disillusioned with studying is an asset. "They're used to children who are not always finding school easy and, if we're looking at schools that are struggling, they often have those kinds of children there, so colleges have some experience," she said.
Offering even the youngest pupils a "continuum of education" could help motivate them by making paths to work or university clearer, Dr Sidwell suggested. Barnfield College, for instance, guarantees college places for its academy pupils in order to encourage more of them to stay in education.
As TES reported last week, colleges' moves into school provision have not been universally welcomed: the Newcastle College Group has come into conflict with its local council over plans to open a free school in an area where schools say there are already surplus places.
But Dr Sidwell said that colleges should expect a warm welcome from schools because they offer the resources of other sponsors combined with a trusted educational brand. "I reckon they will be much more favoured than other sponsors," she said. "We would have to get the right school for the right sponsor, but I think there is unlimited potential in the FE sector for taking on schools."
Coming soon ...
Planned college academies:
- Bradford College - secondary (April 2012)
- Bridgwater College - all-through (September 2012)
- Derby College - secondary (September 2012)
- Lincoln College - secondary (September 2012)
- Salford City College - primary and secondary (September 2012)
- South Nottingham College - secondary (September 2012)
- Stafford College - secondary (September 2012)
- Suffolk New College - secondary (September 2012).
Photo: Elizabeth Sidwell believes colleges could make academy reforms more palatable. Photo by Nick Sinclair
Original headline: Schools commissioner urges colleges to take on the primary sector