Endangered schools grab at academy lifeline

3rd September 2010 at 01:00
Analysis: The Education Secretary's reform programme, the most radical for a generation, will impact profoundly on the education system and those who work in it. Our major new series will examine the changes and consider their consequences. Here, Kerra Maddern reports on middle and other at-risk schools

Michael Gove's bold bid to free schools from local authority control might have been intended to please teachers and parents.

But it has had serious consequences for those already suffering major upheaval. School reorganisation plans - rebuilding, restructuring and the reduction of surplus places - are being thrown into disarray as schools gratefully snatch at the opportunity to avoid closure by becoming an academy.

Local authorities are beginning to realise that these proposals are being made much more difficult in the brave new world being created by the Education Secretary.

Heads and governors who want to rid themselves of local authority control are choosing to stand alone by becoming academies, jeopardising years of careful consultation and plans that affect a whole town or city.

Early evidence suggests that many middle schools - increasingly an endangered species in England's educational landscape - are opting for this route instead of falling foul of local authority reorganisation plans.

Experts have warned that anarchy will reign as council officials find it impossible to plan for the future or co-ordinate the number of school places needed.

In the normally tranquil city of Bath, where the five-year process of reorganising secondary school places has been hijacked by the changes, heads have been trying to save their own establishments amid the threat of forced closure. The council says at least one secondary must be shut and that there are too many single-sex places in the city. There is, it says, a surplus of 1,545.

Oldfield Girls, one of those earmarked for closure, was one of the first to apply for academy status. Another, Culverhay, a boys' school that had been likely to survive, was consequently chosen for the axe instead. Now the head and governors there have applied for academy status, too. The process has now become an intractable stand-off.

Bath and North East Somerset Council had issued an ultimatum to Oldfield: if it did not opt to become co-ed by September 17 it would be closed and a new school opened in 2012. But the council will be powerless if Oldfield becomes an academy.

Oldfield head Kim Sparling has accused the council of making "silly threats" and is refusing to take boys unless the council gives her money to convert her school.

"We took legal advice before submitting our academy application," she says. "We just want to rid ourselves of this uncertainty locally; it's not good for a school."

The local authority has hit back. Chris Watts, cabinet member for Bath and North East Somerset Council, says Ms Sparling "should have got a better lawyer".

"It's not good enough for Oldfield to say they are just going to do what they want," he says. "It's not right for one school to have such a narrow institutional focus and to put their own interests ahead of the wider population."

Culverhay head Richard Thompson is adamant he will also fight to save his school, which serves a much more deprived area than Oldfield. "We think we are morally in the right; we are not being self-serving but trying to serve the community - which will suffer if we are not here," he says.

A Department for Education spokesman said: "The Secretary of State expects to approve all outstanding schools applying, but we have set out clear exceptional circumstances which may prevent this - including wider school reorganisation."

But Mr Gove, perhaps sensing the potential for more of this type of chaos, has asked for a group of experts to help him work out what effect his policies will have on local authorities and other primaries and secondaries. The advisory group has been asked to contribute to future government policy and work out what the new role for councils will be.

"Obviously you don't want too many free schools and academies in one area, but it's going to be up to Government to make those kind of decisions and there will have to be sufficient demand for places," says advisory group member David Pugh, leader of Isle of Wight Council. "We want to work out how to tie local authorities into the process, but there's a lot more to be done. I know the Government is trying to work with LAs and Mr Gove is committed to giving them a role."

Mr Pugh was invited to sit on the committee because of the unusual changes he has made on the Isle of Wight. From next year the council will be the first in the UK not to run any secondary schools. Instead, they will all become trusts or academies. But in a deal with sponsors it has been agreed that the new schools will follow council policy on admissions.

Mr Pugh says this means all the schools will retain some form of accountability to the council, something he wants to see replicated in other new-style academies.

Members of the advisory group have told Mr Gove that councils must be able to intervene in the running of academies - for example, to trigger inspections if they and the Department for Education think there are difficulties.

"Mr Gove is genuinely open-minded," Mr Pugh says.

Under Labour, councils had to ensure there were sufficient school places and keep surpluses to a minimum. However, local authorities will now work under the assumption that they cannot close outstanding schools. This could cause rising costs if they have to keep open those with empty desks.

But it is in areas with middle schools that the impact of the new academies programme could well be most pronounced. Many have been under threat for years as local authorities seek to move from a three-tier system to a two-tier one. Now they could have a new lease of life if they apply for the new status.

In Bedford there were plans to reorganise a three-tier system, but these are now in disarray. Teachers wanted many of the middle schools to remain open, and now they have applied for academy status and will get their wish if Mr Gove approves their plans. For example, a federation of three - Lincroft, Harrold Priory and Margaret Beaufort - has applied.

All are "outstanding", as are the five middle schools in Dorset that have expressed interest in running their own affairs. In all, more than 40 middle-school heads and governors in Harrow, Leicestershire, Northamptonshire, Dorset, Somerset, Suffolk, Worcestershire, Staffordshire and Surrey are interested in becoming academies.

Graham Newman, the councillor responsible for children's and young people's services at Suffolk County Council, now faces the prospect of having to reorganise an increasingly complicated and crowded group of schools.

The council is half-way through the process of moving to a two-tier system. This has been made even more difficult because of public spending cuts, and work is now on hold until the Government's October review. Mr Newman is hoping new policies do not permanently cripple the process.

"We will be in dire trouble if we do not get this done; ministers need to explicitly understand that," he says. "We must be able to finish this job and I have written to the Government to explain that.

"But what money is going to be left for us to make these necessary changes? We've carried out the wishes of the former government and made sure there are schools big enough to offer the kind of qualifications they wanted, such as the Diploma. Now big is not necessarily beautiful any more; there seems to be a new emphasis on localism."

Nigel Wyatt, executive officer of the National Middle Schools Forum, says many more are waiting to see if Mr Gove's policy will be a success.

"One of the main reasons for getting rid of middle schools is to remove surplus places," he says. "In future this might not be an option for local authorities. They will find planning in this way much more difficult, so it might be good news for middle schools."

Mr Gove and his officials say they will approve each new school on a case- by-case basis, but will that mean they now take on responsibility for local school reorganisation plans, too?

The Gove Revolution will appear every three weeks. September 24: the unions.

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