Local authorities unable to save failing academies

18th September 2009 at 01:00
New report endorsed by a Tory council calls for structural overhaul of system

Original paper headline: Local authorities are powerless to save failing academies says Tory council

All local authorities need to be given far-reaching new powers to intervene when academies falter, according to a report endorsed by a high- profile Tory council.

The Government has failed to spell out what should happen when academies struggle to achieve acceptable standards, said the new report, which was commissioned by Westminster City Council.

Local authorities have their hands tied when it comes to offering support, even though parents still hold councils responsible for school performance, it suggests.

The findings are published as Sheffield Park Academy becomes the third academy to be put into special measures by Ofsted.

The pound;30 million school, which is sponsored by the United Learning Trust, the country's biggest academy backer, was criticised for having significant weaknesses in leadership, teaching quality and pupil behaviour.

It also follows Ofsted criticism of Westminster Academy in west London for poor standards of pupil attainment. The school was described as inadequate by inspectors in July.

The Westminster Education Commission report found that the relationship between academies and local authorities has been "ill-defined" by ministers.

Academies are funded centrally and are supposed to operate with complete independence of local councils. There is no duty on them to inform their local authority of problems and councils have no statutory role in improving poor performance.

Professor David Eastwood, the vice-chancellor of Birmingham University and former chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council, who chaired the commission, said: "Our urgent question is who protects the interests of children in these schools when things go wrong?

"We think the local authorities should be part of the improvement plan. We are not saying they should take over, but they have a legitimate interest in playing a role where there needs to be improvement."

The report criticises the Government for not considering the public expectation that local authorities have "moral, prudential and political obligations" to ensure high quality education.

Colin Barrow, leader of Westminster Council, which has no direct control over any of its 10 secondary schools, said: "It's the right and obligation of the local authority to concern itself with what goes on with the education in its borough. We will do that despite the fact we have no statutory control. It's not a power grab, it's common sense."

A Department for Children, Schools and Families spokesman said the Government had "sufficient" powers to intervene in academies where necessary.

"We have no plans to extend them to local authorities, but we do know that many academies have very good relationships with their local authorities," he said.

However, ministers have already acknowledged that the growing number of academies - more than 200 are now open - cannot be properly scrutinised by the department.

It has proposed in a bill currently going through Parliament that the job of holding academies to account is passed to the new Young People's Learning Agency.

The Damned United

Sheffield Park Academy has become the third academy to be placed into special measures following a damning verdict from school inspectors. Despite some improvements, the school, which opened in September 2006, has failed to reach acceptable standards, Ofsted said.

An inspection revealed "significant weaknesses in strategic leadership", while too many pupils make insufficient progress, with some losing ground over the past year. Its sister school, Sheffield Springs Academy, was also described as inadequate by Ofsted in June and given a "notice to improve".

David Lewis, the principal of Sheffield Springs and executive director of Sheffield Park, has now left his job.

As reported in The TES, the United Learning Trust, the schools' sponsor, has instigated a reorganisation that includes bringing in a former manager from John Lewis department stores, who does not have a teaching background, to help develop its school leaders.

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar, Buyagift.com, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today