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The next government should press ‘reset’ on the system of academies and local authority schools

classroom of a few students

On the anniversary of former Education Secretary Michael Gove declaring in 2011 that all new schools in England should be ‘academies’, a report from education think tank EDSK calls on whoever wins the next election to move beyond ideological debates over who runs our state schools.

The report – titled ‘20 years of muddling through’ – recommends that the next government focuses on building a coherent, collaborative and stable school system that prioritises the needs of the most disadvantaged pupils.

The report identifies numerous problems with the current ‘academies’ programme. The excessive pay packages for some academy trust CEOs – in some cases, almost £200,000 for running a single school – are indefensible when school budgets are so tight. Such behaviour by a small number of trusts has damaged the reputation of academies as a whole.

Moreover, there are no details published on how academy trusts distribute funding to their schools, and the funding contracts between academy trusts and the Department for Education (DfE) are kept secret. This lack of transparency means it is not possible for parents, ministers or government officials to assess the financial health of many academy schools or even check whether all pupils receive their minimum entitlement of government funding.

The report also raises concerns about the excessive and unwarranted centralisation of power in the hands of the DfE since 2010. Local authority ‘maintained’ schools operate under a single legal framework set by Parliament whereas academies are governed by agreements, rules and handbooks that been endlessly tinkered with by ministers since the first academies were created 20 years ago.

To compound this, the DfE’s ‘Regional Directors’, who now oversee academies and academy trusts, operate in an opaque and unpredictable manner without enough local input. The DfE’s 2022 White Paper outlined plans for local authorities to set up their own trusts, only for those plans to be cancelled soon afterwards, which illustrates the absence of strategic thinking about how to manage schools.

In addition, the report finds that the current school system fails to protect the interests of some of the most vulnerable and disadvantaged children and young people. Local authorities no longer have a clear role and accompanying legal powers to effectively support pupils in their area. Worse still, some schools continue to resist the admission of children with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities or an Education, Health and Care Plan.

Local authorities do not have the power to force an academy to admit vulnerable pupils, which can leave them unable to find a school even if there are local places available. Academies now account for 83 per cent of complaints about admissions policies, further complicating efforts to ensure the most disadvantaged pupils are treated fairly.

The report concludes that the next government should seek to push decision-making power out of the DfE and move it closer to local communities to create a coherent and stable school system that operates in a fair and transparent manner.

The EDSK report includes the following recommendations:

  • The current parallel system of maintained schools and academies should be replaced by a single system of ‘School Boards’ that can be operated by independent organisations or local authorities under the same legal framework set by Parliament.
  • School Boards will be required to use a new national pay scale for all CEOs and senior leaders that caps the maximum salary that can be awarded based on the number of pupils in the Board’s schools
  • A new independent regulator – the Office for Capacity and Oversight in Education (OFCOE) – should take over responsibility for overseeing the performance and governance of the school system at a devolved level (including intervening in underperforming schools).
  • Local authorities will act as the ‘champion’ for all children and young people in their area, and they will also take charge of admissions for all state schools, including existing academies.
  • Financial transparency will be dramatically enhanced by School Boards receiving funding directly from the DfE and all Boards being required to fund their schools based on the National Funding Formula. Every school will also have to publish an annual breakdown of their income, expenditure, balances and staffing.

Tom Richmond, director of EDSK and co-author of this new report, said:

“Over the last decade the way that we run state schools has become a political football, creating a constant distraction from improving the life chances of children and young people. On that basis, the next government needs to press reset on the school system to escape the toxic atmosphere created by debates over ‘academies’ and ‘academisation’.

“The goal should be to replace the centralisation and political interference seen in recent years with a stable and coherent approach to running and funding state schools that prioritises the best interests of pupils, particularly the most vulnerable and disadvantaged. Our report shows how this can be achieved without distracting headteachers and teachers from their crucial daily work.”

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