Small schools fear that they will be closed or left with nowhere to turn for support as the government’s academies revolution sweeps through England over the next six years.
Ministers have been publicly stating their desire for a fully academised schools system since the autumn.
But around three-quarters of state schools in England – more than 15,000 – have yet to acquire academy status. And this week’s announcement by chancellor George Osborne of a whirlwind of forced conversions by 2022 (see box, below right) and the effective end of local authorities’ traditional role in education has come as a shock to many.
Headteachers’ representatives argue that in ministers’ brave new world, the relationships that small schools have with local village communities could be damaged, leading to a loss of autonomy and freethinking, and, ultimately, triggering closures.
Barbara Taylor, secretary of the National Association for Small Schools (NASS), told TES that she was concerned that smaller primaries would be forced by the government to join multi-academy trusts (MATs) and then face extinction.
“Schools that joined academy chains have contacted us to say they have been told they may close – not only primaries, secondaries as well,” she said. “Quite often, if small schools join academy chains then [the trusts] may decide they’re not profitable and close them.”
There are currently 5,172 primary schools with designated “rural” status, a legal definition that means they cannot be closed before certain factors are taken into account, such as the effects on the local community. North Yorkshire, Norfolk and Devon have the highest number of schools on the list.
But that protection has not allayed the fears of some. Mervyn Benford, a former head who speaks for NASS, cited the example of an academy trust in Devon that took on a rural village primary and a year later angered parents by bussing its Year 6 pupils to a school in a town 8 miles away. He said that village schools’ community links could seem an ‘encumbrance’ to MATs.
“Some of our members now in MATs are beginning to feel they are not as free as they thought they were,” Mr Benford added. “Our feeling is, unless primaries are in MATs that have pledged to fight to keep them open then there is a risk in joining them.”
Russell Hobby, general secretary of the NAHT headteachers’ union, called on the government to provide greater clarification on who will support small primary schools.
“Removing schools from local authority control, without considering the new frameworks of support that must surround them, will solve nothing by itself,” he said. “We want to know what will happen for small schools that rely on external support and which appear neglected in most strategies. Who will step in to support them?”
‘Nowhere to turn’
Before the latest announcement, schools were already alarmed by the impending removal of local authority support.
A Department for Education consultation on funding revealed last week that, from summer 2017, local authorities would no longer be funded for, or expected to carry out, school improvement.
Association of School and College Leaders funding specialist Julia Harden said that the move would have “significant impact” as schools that needed support but were not attractive to MATs “wouldn’t have anywhere to turn”.
Some provision is expected to be made for “Cinderella schools” that might prove unattractive to MATs owing to their small size, limited budgets, expensive buildings or remote locations. As TES went to press, further details were expected to be released in a new schools White Paper.
Some leading chains are known to already have concerns about how the system for setting up new free schools and academies is currently working (see comment from the Harris Federation’s Dan Moynihan on page 20).
Kevin Courtney, deputy general secretary of the NUT teaching union, said: “What [ministers are] risking is getting rid of all the support mechanisms from local authorities without having shown that they have got robust replacements for them, let alone any sort of better replacements.”
He said this would “put education at very great risk”, and posed a particular risk to rural primary schools, which “haven’t shown that they can find sponsors or [MATs] willing to take them on”.
The imperative to find that support will grow with the new requirement, which was announced by the government on Wednesday, for all schools to have either converted to academy status by 2020 or to “have an academy order in place by then, so they are committed to converting by 2022”.
Bridget Burke, headteacher of Rattlesden Primary, a small, rural school in Suffolk, saw that the “writing was on the wall” and joined a MAT earlier this year as a result of cuts to local authority services. She is concerned about the impact that further cuts will have in other schools (see box, above right).
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “We do not tolerate failure and the strength of the academies programme is that it allows us to intervene swiftly, including replacing sponsors where it is in the best interests of the school.
“We have encouraged all schools, including small rural primaries, to consider joining a multi-academy trust so that they can enjoy the benefits of efficiencies and working in partnership with other schools to build school improvement expertise.”
For more on academisation and thoughts on the current system, read Sir David Carter’s leadership column on page 16, and Dan Moynihan’s comment on page 20
‘Setting schools free’
The government’s blueprint to “set schools free from the shackles of local bureaucracy”:
Chancellor George Osborne announced this week that all state schools in England will have to become academies.
“It is simply unacceptable that Britain continues to sit too low down the global league tables for education,” the chancellor said. “So I’m going to get on with finishing the job that we started five years ago, to drive up standards and set schools free from the shackles of local bureaucracy.”
By 2020, schools will have to either have converted to academy status or have an academy order in place so that they will be committed to converting by 2022.
A headteacher’s view: ‘Joining a MAT makes sense’
Bridget Burke, headteacher of Rattlesden Primary School, realised that the “writing was on the wall” after discussions with her local authority several years ago and decided to join a multi-academy trust (MAT).
In January, the 120-pupil primary in rural Suffolk became part of Thedwastre Education Trust, joining three other village schools. This “made sense”, Ms Burke says. “Local authorities are shrinking each term and the amount of support they can give is not there now.”
The head explains that the strains of running a small school on her own had become too great. “I do absolutely everything, from unblocking the toilets to locking up at night – if I don’t do it then who does?” she says. “I am a small school compared to the others and now I feel like they have my back and will help and support me. It feels safe.”
But Ms Burke is concerned about what the end of local authority school improvement funding will mean for schools that have not become academies by the summer of 2017.
“I don’t know how a regional schools commissioner would work with schools that require improvement if we don’t have a school improvement team,” she says. “We used to pick up the phone and speak to a terrific team of people who have a great understanding of working at local authority schools. If it goes completely, where would [schools] get this expertise?
“If you are part of a family of schools or federation or trust you will need to be searching for some kind of support. I don’t know of any headteachers who are not looking into it.”