Back to schools

10 Jun 10
The new education secretary has hit the playground running, with legislation on free schools and fast-track academies. But what does this mean for school rebuilds, special educational needs and the role of local authorities? Conor Ryan talked to Michael Gove
By Conor Ryan

10 June 2010

The new education secretary has hit the playground running, with legislation on free schools and fast-track academies. But what does this mean for school rebuilds, special educational needs and the role of local authorities? Conor Ryan talked to Michael Gove


The giant rainbow logo overshadowing Ed Balls’s Department for Children, Schools and Families came down as soon as the coalition deal was done. The DCSF was renamed the Department for Education, and Michael Gove took responsibility for the schools policy he had developed in opposition.

Gove was joined at Sanctuary Buildings by Nick Gibb, a traditionalist schools minister, and Tim Loughton as the junior children’s minister, both ­members of his shadow team.

The Liberal Democrats have Sarah Teather as minister of state for children, in pole position to put their ‘pupil premium’ policy – extra payments to schools for disadvantaged children – into practice. Jonathan Hill, Gibb’s deputy, is a new peer who ran Conservative prime minister John ­Major’s ­political office in the early 1990s.

Gove quickly identified £670m of spending cuts and launched two Bills in the Queen’s Speech. The first tweaks ­Labour’s academies legislation to allow outstanding primary and secondary schools to join a streamlined programme. It also enables funding for parents and teachers to establish ‘free schools’ with charitable foundations. Gove has said he is not ­ideologically opposed to profit-making organisations running schools, but he remains pragmatically committed to a not-for-profit programme.

A summer white paper will herald the  second Bill in the autumn. It will introduce the pupil premium, allow head teachers to detain pupils more easily, refocus Ofsted inspections and remove non-academic subjects from the national curriculum. The Bill will also scrap the Qualifications & Curriculum Development Agency, responsible for curriculum development, and the General Teaching Council for England, which has regulated teachers since 2001. Its residual responsibilities will be transferred to the ­Department for Education or other agencies.

Interest in free schools is growing rapidly, according to the New Schools Network, a charity run by ex-Gove adviser Rachel Wolf, to put parents’ and other groups in touch with academy providers such as Ark and the Harris Trust. The network has had 550 expressions of interest from parents, teachers and charities in establishing new free schools. Fifteen parent-led schools could open next year, using buildings that are closing in local authority reorganisations, with new teacher-led schools from 2012. ‘Just over half those we are working with are groups of teachers who want to set up schools in deprived areas,’ Wolf says.

Some of the keenest parents face local school closures. In April, David Cameron and Gove backed a campaign at Birkenshaw Middle school in Kirklees in West Yorkshire. Local parents wanted to convert a closing 380-pupil school for 8 to 12 year-olds into a 900-pupil secondary school from 2013, at a cost of £15m. Balls rejected the proposal, accepting advice that it would damage the financial ­viability of other local schools. Kirklees council is reluctant to hand over the school site, preferring to focus on a new academy three miles away for its residents – Birkenshaw attracts many Leeds and Bradford pupils. But the parents say this would force pupils to travel further and leave too few school places locally.

Campaigner Lesley Surman, who has sons aged 8, 10 and 11, says: ‘We tried to work with the council, but they were ­totally opposed to what we were doing.

‘This is not just for our children – my eldest probably won’t go to the new school – but for generations of children to come, to keep our community together.’

The government promises capital funding for the new schools. In opposition, the Conservatives said they would use 15% of Labour’s £55bn Building Schools for the Future renewal ­programme to fund free schools.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies points out that Labour had already planned to cut capital spending on schools from £6.5bn in 2009/10 to £5.8bn in 2010/11, and probably further thereafter. They say there is not enough money to go around. Yet, more than 1,000 school rebuilds are already being planned and many councils fear their projects will be lost. MPs of all parties have been seeking reassurances about their local school renewal plans.

Local authorities will also find their planning role emasculated as new legislation will require them to lease disused buildings and land to new schools. It will also prevent them from using planning rules to block schools. While Labour gave parents the right to demand new schools, local authority opposition meant few ­parent-led schools were established. The new government’s change of focus might anger Conservative and Liberal Democrat councillors, but Education Secretary Michael Gove expects many local ­authorities to back his plans. Speaking to Public Finance, he says: ‘My view is that you want a mixed economy in school ­provision. The best local authorities recognise that if some schools are academies, it acts as a spur to other schools to innovate.’

Academy numbers could increase ­rapidly from this autumn, when schools rated ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted will be able to become academies without consulting their local authority. Gove told the Commons on June 2 that 626 outstanding schools had expressed interest in becoming academies, including 299 secondary schools, 273 primaries and 52 special schools. Outstanding schools will also be exempted from five-yearly inspections ­unless their results slip or parents complain.

Other schools could apply to become academies later this year, although only those with strong development plans will get early approval. Gove revealed that he plans to recreate a post established by former Labour prime minister Tony Blair – and scrapped by Balls – to broker new academies and free schools.

‘We are looking at reviving the role of the schools commissioner so that we can ensure continuing growth in the takeover and transfer of failing schools,’ he says.

Academies will now include primary and special schools. A quick conversion might appeal particularly to the 1,257 existing foundation schools. Many of these are former grant-maintained schools, which already employ their staff, own their buildings and have admissions flexibility (within a code barring new selection). As academies, they could set their own pay rates and deviate from the national curriculum. They would be run by trusts and funded by Whitehall, with extra cash for services otherwise provided by the local authority. This extra funding can be worth 7%–10% of a school’s budget – £300,000–£600,000 for a secondary school each year. This is an enticing sum when money is tight, if the schools can provide the services more cheaply.

But the Tory-led Local Government Association fears a two-tier education system. LGA chair Baroness Margaret Eaton, a Bradford Conservative councillor, says: ‘A share of education money is currently invested in providing services for pupils with special educational needs, and those who are excluded from mainstream education.’ The sums involved amount to around £2bn a year across England, according to the DfE.

The governors of Oldfield girls’ ­foundation school near Bath have already voted for the school to become an academy, angering local coalition politicians.  Oldfield, rated outstanding by Ofsted, feared it could be forced to close or become co-educational under the council’s reorganisation plans. Head teacher Kim Sparling believes governors have ‘secured the future’ of the school by opting for academy status. She told the Times Educational Supplement: ‘As an academy we will have freedom with the curriculum and the exams we want to use. We will be able to innovate as we see fit.’

But Conservative councillor Chris Watt, Bath & North East Somerset Cabinet member for children’s services, told the Bath Chronicle: ‘What would be frustrating is if the unintended consequence of the legislation is that we end up stuck with a provision that is not what local parents want.’ And Liberal Democrat Bath MP Don Foster has asked ministers to develop a ‘local needs test’ when ­academies are established.

But council planning worries are not the only concern. The government has said that it wants the new academies to be engines of social mobility. Most of the 203 existing ones were established to combat disadvantage and low achievement in inner-city areas (a few are former independent schools or city technology colleges). A further 100 such academies are due this year. When Balls gave academy status to outstanding maintained schools, it was as part of trusts working with poorer performing schools, as in Wakefield and Essex.

Given that the new academies’ often socially selective admissions policies are unlikely to change, they will need to work with other schools if they are to do more to improve social mobility. But while a focus on converting failing schools linked with sponsors will remain, the new outstanding academies will not be required to have sponsors or to work with weaker schools. This could simply recreate grant-maintained schools without the hassle of parental ballots, a switch of emphasis criticised by teachers’ leaders.

‘Without the help of top schools, ­under-performing schools will be cut off and tied to a local authority with less funding,’ fears Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers.

Existing academy leaders welcome the new schools but are concerned about the change in emphasis. ‘Academies have used their powers to lever up standards for our most disadvantaged young ­people,’ says David Wootton, vice-chair of the Independent Academies Association. ‘We hope that the new academies will continue this tradition and that they recognise how sponsors can play a big role in widening their horizons.’

However, Gove defends his approach, insisting that the new academies will work with weaker schools. ‘If we absolutely insisted on a do or die regime, some schools might have shied away from becoming academies,’ he says. ‘I felt that generosity not conscription would work best, although we will have a strong expectation that the new academies will use their skills to the benefit of others.’ Academy funding agreements might require it.

Then there is the issue of money in this age of austerity. While the coalition has guaranteed real-terms funding rises for schools, 16–19 education in colleges and Sure Start this year, it has not given any details yet of future plans nor how it will fund both free schools and the pupil premium. Each free school pupil would get the same money as other academy pupils, but local authorities face bills for any resulting surplus places. Then, it is unclear how much of the £2,400-a-year premium envisaged by the LibDems for every pupil on free school meals will survive the Spending Review, given an annual £2.5bn cost. ‘The pupil premium is the flagship for the Liberal Democrats in the same way that autonomy is for us in the coalition agreement,’ says Gove. ‘Its size will be part of the Spending Review.’

But the premium was originally to have been funded from reduced bureaucracy in his department and scrapping child trust funds. Since both pots have already been raided to pay down the deficit, and the coalition agreement says the premium will be funded from outside the schools budget, there will be big cuts elsewhere.

Education ministers initially want a premium on top of existing funding in all schools before moving to a national funding formula. However, the Treasury might try to keep costs down by removing funding for other school-based initiatives or moving more quickly to a national formula.  Children’s and youth services programmes and education maintenance allowances, which pay poorer children £30 a week for staying in education after 16, face an uncertain future within the education budget. Meanwhile, a national funding formula could also result in a bigger premium in the shires and suburbs rather than in the inner-city schools that gained most from Labour spending.

Yet ministers remain convinced that their changes will not only liberate schools but improve parental choice, raise standards and increase social mobility. Indeed, Gove expects that most schools will become academies and that they will ‘want to use those powers to increase standards for all children and close the gap between the richest and the poorest’. He will be judged not just on the extent to which his approach improves choice for the middle classes, but on how much it improves social mobility.

Conor Ryan is a former senior education adviser to Tony Blair and David Blunkett. He blogs at www.conorfryan.blogspot.com

Navigation