Cuts in the Education Services Grant will prevent councils supporting schools

The government may have made a “u-turn” on academisation, but dramatic reductions in the Education Services Grant will prevent councils from adequately supporting schools, argues David Borrow. The plan to sever the link between local authorities, schools, and their communities, he says, is ill thought-out and undemocratic

No doubt about it: the government’s climbdown over academies was as welcome as it was sudden. But as swiftly as the dust settled, the outlook is still bleak for the future of local authorities in education.

This is despite councils still currently providing vital support services to some 13,000 schools.

The reforms included in the so-called Education for All bill at no point recognise the strong partnerships that schools and councils have forged over time, and are designed with the goal of full academisation in six years’ time.

The two triggers Nicky Morgan outlined for forced academisation – council “unviability” and “underperformance” – still make areas hugely vulnerable for conversion, despite the “forced” part of the policy being dropped.

The Education Services Grant (ESG), used by councils for school improvement and special needs pupils, and to plan for school places, is reducing at pace and scale. Some £600 million will be cut nationally over the next two years, leaving authorities with an almost non-existent budget with which to improve education standards.

The withdrawal of the ESG is on the presumption that schools would stop receiving local authority input, as they would be academies by 2022. My council, Lancashire, has already seen its grant go down from £20 million in 2014-15 to £14.5 million in 2016-17, with the worst yet to come.

In light of the government halting forced academisation, we need ministers to look again at the scale and pace of these cutbacks. Otherwise, it will be inevitable that councils will find it unviable to support schools, leading to drops in performance, therefore hitting both academisation triggers.

You could argue this is forced academisation by the back door.

My council is not anti-academy, but the government has forgotten that local authorities don’t run schools anymore, but maintain state-run ones. They have a good track record in forging positive partnerships with all types of school to drive up improvement.

Only half the battle has been won. We still have a role

Indeed, in Lancashire, well over half the academies in the county purchase school improvement services from my council. And in Buckinghamshire, a charitable trust brings together local authority and schools’ knowledge to improve education. Our expertise should be embraced, not diminished.

These proposals are further exacerbated by a new schools funding formula. On one hand, counties welcome a fairer distribution of money, as schools in county areas have been historically underfunded for years. On the other, it further removes councils from making decisions, in partnership with schools forums, on where to best route money to meet local needs and priorities. We fear this could lead to smaller rural schools, which are cross-subsidised, becoming financially unviable.

If these cuts are not re-examined, how can local authorities successfully plan for school places? Or require academies to expand in areas with a population boom? And if an academy chain fails – and there have been high-profile recent cases – who will pick up the pieces?

The answers aren’t clear, but we can be sure that in practice, it will be councils. And we’ll have to do that with non-existent budgets.

Localism is at the heart of our schools system. When I was MP, I was able to successfully lobby the schools minister to keep open a threatened primary school. The plan to sever the link between local authorities, schools, and their communities is ill thought-out and undemocratic. If councils are written out of the education script, who can continue to beat this important drum?

County Councils Network members are happy that the government has been willing to listen to their concerns. But only half the battle is won. We must press our case that local authorities still have a valuable role in the world of education, and that they should be fairly funded to continue to improve standards in a mixed economy of schools.

Whitehall listened to our concerns the first time, and must be willing to work with us again to ensure that the reforms deliver well thought-out and evidenced changes to the education system that pupils, parents, and teachers deserve.

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