Small schools at risk of closure under academies plan, warns union boss

A move to turn all schools into academies risks the closure of small and “expensive” rural schools, as academy trusts avoid or try to shift the “less attractive” institutions off their books, it has been warned.

The government wants every school to become an academy by 2022, but the financial viability of smaller schools as part of a fully-academised system has been called into question by trade unionists and policy advisers with close links to the government.

Small schools already face a harsh financial climate because of low pupil numbers, and are often propped-up only by costly intervention from councils. The National Association of Small Schools is among those to have warned about an increasingly dire situation faced by its members.

But the issue is back on the agenda after the Association of Teachers and Lecturers tabled a motion to its conference next week, calling for an investigation into small-school funding.

Mary Bousted, the general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, said the viability of small schools in academy chains was a key concern for union bosses and all parents with pupils at small schools should be “highly concerned” about their future.

“A multi-academy trust is essentially a business venture, and they have to be viable,” Dr Bousted told reporters yesterday. “I think any parent of a child in a small rural school should be highly concerned about the potential for that school to be wrapped up into a trust and then closed.”

Dr Bousted said smaller schools should stay under the oversight of councils, and warned smaller communities risked becoming “dormer villages for second homes” if they lost their schools, which she said were often a “centre for the community”.

But warnings about the future viability of small schools aren’t coming only from those who represent the schools and their staff. Jonathan Simons, the head of education at right-leaning think tank Policy Exchange, and a key player in government schools policy, has also warned that trusts could engage in “adverse selection”.

In a blog post, Mr Simons referred to the 1,975 primary schools in England with fewer than 100 pupils and the 113 schools with fewer than 30, admitting they could be considered “less attractive”, along with schools with high levels of debt or complex PFI structures.

He said: “In public policy theory, this potential for adverse selection by providers is referred to by the elegant phrases of ‘cream skimming’ or ‘dumping’, and it’s an accepted function for regulation to ensure that this is corrected for.”

Mr Simons said potential solutions included requiring new learning trusts or “local authority spin-outs” to be a provider of last resort, requiring regional schools commissioners to form an arms-length trust themselves to run unwanted schools, or a duty for trusts to take a “mixed portfolio of schools”.

Earlier this month, Schools Week reported that a series of small-school closures or threats of closure had left one Devon family having to move their daughter for the fourth time.

Becky and John Whinnerah will have to find another school for Tia, 9, after Sutcombe Primary, in the borough of Torridge, was earmarked for closure by Devon County Council. The school is less than half-full with just 21 pupils on roll, and has been unable to afford a headteacher.

A Department for Education spokesperson said it was “irresponsible” to suggest small schools would close as a result of its plans.

“As we make every school an academy, we will encourage them to work together in multi-academy trusts so they share resources, staff and expertise, driving up standards, and, in many cases, better support the sustainability of smaller schools,” she said.

She claimed that the new national funding formula would make funding fairer and would include “extra funding for small schools in sparsely-populated areas”.

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  1. Policy wonks like Jonathan Simons who have never taught in a school but dream up mad schemes like the one outlined in the White Paper have no idea of the damage to themselves they could unleash. I’ve spent my whole life in education and have been personally involved in a number of cases where a local authority tried to close several small village schools, for good economic and demographic reasons. Nearly every time there was a massive and powerful backlash from the local community and often the schools remained open as a result. When David Blunkett was education secretary he gave in to the Countryside Alliance’s opposition to his plans to rationalise local education provision and had to write a new clause protecting small rural schools so that LAs couldn’t close them even when there was a compelling argument to do so. The DfE and its advisers forget that the people they will alienate through their ignorant policies are voters. Opposition to the dire White Paper is growing fast and deserves to result in a major U-turn despite Nicky Moron’s stupid hostage to fortune “we have no reverse gear”. Who’d buy a car that couldn’t go backwards as well as forwards? Admitting such a fundamental design flaw shows what an inept politician she is.

    • Quentin Craven

      Hi David Marriott. I am not an expert in education by any means, but I am naturally suspicious of all new Tory legislation, coming as it generally does from free-market dogma and often clumsy cost-cutting motives. Forgive my ignorance then in not quite understanding your antagonism to the White Paper. A main criticism of the proposed legislation is the possible closure of many “marginal” small schools as they could seem unattractive to multi-academy trusts. At the same time, I understand you to be saying there have been many successfully resisted attempts to close numbers of small schools where their closure would have been economically and demographically justified.

      Please clarify this, as your position would appear on the face of it to be supported by the white paper proposals. I do accept I am probably missing something in your argument!


      Quentin Craven,
      Hartland, N. Devon