Labour council first to urge academy switch

30th July 2010 at 01:00
Middlesbrough claims backing of heads, but union slams 'abrogation of responsibility'

A labour-run council has become the first in the country to encourage all of its secondaries to convert to academy status.

Councillors in Middlesbrough insist the move is needed to help "secure a step change in attainment" in a town with "deep-seated problems".

Their stance is in marked contrast to that of Ed Balls, the shadow education secretary, who is "deeply concerned" about plans for academy expansion.

Mike Carr, the Labour executive member for education, said: "Clearly, there will be further pressure from Government to go further down the academy route, so we thought it would be better to take the initiative ourselves and not take a piecemeal approach.

"The fact is, the last Labour government was strongly promoting academies. The current Government might be doing it differently in terms of speed, but the idea is not any different."

He said all secondary heads in the Teesside town backed the plan.

Ministers have billed academy status as a way for schools to free themselves from local authorities. But Mr Carr said that after a rocky start, the council had enjoyed a close relationship with Middlesbrough's three academies, and he would expect no different from the town's other four secondaries.

Earlier this month, the Association of Directors of Children's Services controversially stated that all schools should become academies.

However, John Bangs, head of education at the NUT, described Middlesbrough's plans as an "abrogation of responsibility".

"It is utter defeatism by the authority," he said. "I would seriously counsel schools not to do it. They are going to be creating bureaucracy for themselves, which is completely unnecessary, and will not be able to plan consistently for the future.

"The biggest irony is that some of the Tory councils, like Hampshire and Kent, have a bigger sense of responsibility to their schools than some of these smaller Labour authorities."

Dot Stockdale, Middlesbrough branch secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, said: "The unions would prefer to see schools stay with the council rather than move apart. We are concerned about the implications."

Mr Carr admits the Unity City Academy, which is currently subject to the National Challenge scheme, is "evidence that the previous academy approach is not universally successful".

Ray Mallon, Middlesbrough's independent, directly elected mayor - a former detective nicknamed "Robocop" - backs the plan. He has control of the authority but his power over education is devolved to Mr Carr.

None of the town's secondary schools has been judged "outstanding" by Ofsted and so none would be eligible to be among the first tranche of schools converting to academy status in September.

The council is not recommending its primary schools should become academies, but wants them to work more closely with the secondary sector.

Mr Carr admitted it might be harder for the council to support its primaries if it had fewer economies of scale with no secondaries.

"I am sure that is an issue we will need to address," he said. "We are a small authority anyway, but that is not a reason not to go ahead. We think there is a lot to be gained."

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