Struggling schools left in limbo awaiting academisation
Unions say NAO report shows that struggling schools are being left in limbo because the government cannot then find them an academy sponsor
Published on 22nd February 2018
The proportion of schools that are academies varies between local authorities from 6% to 93%, according to a report by the National Audit Office.
All local authority areas contain both academies and maintained schools but the proportion of schools that were academies at January 2018 varied from 93% in Bromley to 6% in Lancashire, Lewisham and North Tyneside.
“Rates of academy conversion from maintained schools tend to be lowest in the north of England and in London,” said the report.
A much higher proportion of secondary schools than primary schools have become academies, the report found. At January 2018, 7,472 state-funded schools were academies (35%), of which 6,996 had converted from maintained schools. Academies were teaching an estimated 47% of pupils.
72% of secondary schools were academies, compared with 27% of primary schools which means that local authorities have responsibility for most primary schools and specialist providers but few secondary schools, making it more difficult for them to take an integrated whole-system approach to their children’s education.
The Department for Education withdrew the ‘general funding rate’ that was previously paid to local authorities and academies for school support services as part of the Education Services Grant in 2017-18. There is a risk that, because of the loss of this funding, local authorities will reduce their support for maintained schools, which will affect primary schools in particular, the NAO warns.
Recognising that local authorities may need to find alternative sources of revenue, the Department has made provision for local authorities to retain a proportion of their maintained schools’ budgets. Regardless of the mix of maintained schools and academies, local authorities retain important responsibilities, including an obligation to provide enough school places even though they do not control the number of places in academy schools.
The NAO highlights:
- 6,996 maintained schools had converted to academies at January 2018
- There were 1,101 approved sponsors at January 2018
- The DfE spent £81m in 2016-17 converting schools to academies
- 35% of state-funded schools were academies, including free schools, at January 2018
- 47% of pupils are being taught in academies, including free schools, at January 2018
Since 2010, all schools have been allowed to seek academy status. High-performing maintained schools can choose to become academies, and either form or join an academy trust. The Department has a statutory duty to direct all maintained schools that Ofsted has rated as inadequate to convert to academies with a sponsor.
Most academies were previously good or outstanding maintained schools. Between 2010/11 and 2016/17, 4,674 schools, mainly those that Ofsted had rated as good or outstanding, became academies without a sponsor. Over the same period, 1,573 mainly underperforming schools converted with the support of a sponsor.
Geoff Barton, General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “The National Audit Office report has highlighted a critical issue. Struggling schools are being left in limbo because the government insists that they have to be academised but cannot then find an academy sponsor for them. We call on ministers to rethink their approach to schools which are deemed to be underperforming.
“Compulsory academisation should not be the default ‘solution’, particularly where it is very difficult to secure a sponsor. Instead, a range of options should be considered to give the school the swift and effective support that is needed to improve standards for its pupils, and the school itself should be meaningfully consulted about the best way forward,” he added.
Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said: “This report is a damning indictment of government education policy. The true legacy of the academy programme, and its attack on local authority oversight and structures, are the 105 schools previously forced to become academies following an ‘inadequate’ rating by Ofsted which are now languishing without support nine months later because the Department for Education has failed to find a sponsor for them. The government’s marketplace system has simply failed to deliver for these schools or their children.
“Today’s report draws attention to the fragmented state of England’s education system. The proportion of schools that were academies, including free schools, in different local authority areas, at January 2018 ranged from 6% to 93%. This incoherence makes it impossible to guarantee a level playing field in terms of the quality of education that parents can expect across the county. As the NAO notes, regardless of the mix of maintained schools and academies, local authorities retain important responsibilities, including an obligation to provide enough school places even though they do not control the number of places in academy schools.
“As the report makes clear, in 2017-18, the Department withdrew the ‘general funding rate’ that was previously paid to local authorities and academies for school support services as part of the Education Services Grant. At the same time that government is demanding ever-higher standards from schools, it is taking away the funding needed to support that work.
“Schools up and down the country are going cap in hand to parents because they simply don’t have enough money – yet the government continues to live in a state of denial. Head teachers, parents, teachers and school staff know better, and it is the pupils who are bearing the brunt.
“It is time that the government called a halt to its failed education reforms. Schools must be returned to the accountability and democratic oversight of local authorities and education funding must be restored both to schools themselves and to local councils to enable them to carry out their education function. Though the NAO report doesn’t comment on this, the evidence of many independent studies confirms that schools do not do better or improve faster through conversion to sponsored academies, rather than staying with local authorities,” he concluded.
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