The issue of the merits of local authority oversight versus ministers’ favoured approach, which sees charitable trusts running schools subject to monitoring by central government, is back in the spotlight after a major academy chain failed.
Wakefield City Academies Trust (WCAT), based in the west Yorkshire town, announced on 8 September that it was seeking to hand over all 21 of its schools, spread across Yorkshire and the Humber, to new academy “sponsors”.
The trust said it “does not have the capacity to facilitate the rapid improvement our academies need and our students deserve”. Worries about finances are also swirling around WCAT, while a public meeting also heard complaints of “secrecy” and “no accountability”.
The collapse of WCAT is embarrassing for the academies policy. Less than two years ago, the Department for Education was proclaiming the trust not just as a successful organisation, but as a potential flag-bearer for its academies reforms across the north of England.
The practical problem concerns what happens to WCAT’s schools now. After the announcement, a petition was started to have WCAT’s schools return to the auspices of the Wakefield local authority. It was argued that this would provide democratic accountability.
With no strong evidence that academy status itself improves schools, there appears to be a good argument to return the schools to the local authority.
WCAT said it was working with the government to transfer the schools to other multi-academy trusts (MATs)., though MATs can prove reluctant to take on schools with financial troubles or that may be difficult to turn around.
The Department for Education has now announced “preferred sponsors” to take over each of the WCAT schools. But some of these have had controversies of their own and it is not clear how the process will end.
David Jones, a Labour councillor in Wakefield and former assistant headteacher, said: “The government does not have a solution in these situations where an academy trust fails, as its entire academies policy is founded on the idea that it is going to improve schools. When this doesn’t take place – as can happen, for a variety of reasons – it still doesn’t really know what to do.”
Practicalities, then, as well as the debate around accountability, might provide a strong argument for at least considering a local authority solution. However, even vociferous critics of events at WCAT doubt whether this will happen because ministers are committed to academisation as a flagship policy.
For John Fowler, an expert on education law and policy manager for the Local Government Information Unit, there is nothing preventing the government from returning academies to local authorities. Any academy could simply be closed and reopened as a maintained (local authority) school, he said. The issue, therefore, is one of political will, rather than legality.
While this and other developments renew debate over the structural reforms behind almost 7,000 schools leaving their local authorities to become academies, the government may also quietly be reinventing some aspects of the local authority role within its controversial new oversight structures for schools.
It emerged last month that the DfE had advertised two “school improvement” roles to work in the office of one of the government’s eight regional schools commissioners. In addition, 36 “sub-regional” school improvement boards are being developed, with council officers to serve on them alongside civil servants and local teaching school representatives.
The regional schools commissioner structure, which involves very small support teams and has responsibility for overseeing academy standards and recommending academy conversions, was criticised as overstretched in a Commons education select committee inquiry in 2016.
One source quoted a local authority official as saying: “As far as I can tell, regional schools commissioners are increasingly going back to local authorities for intelligence about the schools in their areas as they don’t have capacity to do this alone. Naturally there will be a resistance to anything that looks like recreating local education authorities, but it wouldn’t surprise me if they end up recreating something like these within the DfE and finding ways of encouraging localised multi-academy trusts to run schools in geographical boundaries.”
The prospects, then, for greater local authority involvement in support or oversight of schools still seem limited and hedged-around under the current administration, given that it has invested so much political capital in its academies reforms.
It may be, then, far too soon still to talk about a return to greater local authority involvement in the running of schools, especially amid concerns voiced by Prospect (see reports on pages 6-7 in July’s EducationEye) about continuing contractions of the support services that local authorities do still offer for non-academy schools, and with any greater role for local authorities currently taking place around the margins of policy.
However, ongoing academy controversies seem likely to see this debate continuing.
- A longer version of this article was published in the October issue of EducationEye, the magazine for our members in education and children’s services
Warwick Mansell is a freelance education journalist