Local authorities

This consultation could force academisation by the back door

A new DfE consultation. Released over half-term. To little fanfare and with a short timeframe. One cynical headteacher suspects it could be a ploy

A new DfE consultation. Released over half-term. To little fanfare and with a short timeframe. One cynical headteacher suspects it could be a ploy

15 Nov 2021, 5:00

The DfE recently released a consultation “seeking views on proposals to reform how local authorities’ school improvement functions are funded”. The proposal is simple: withdraw central funding and allow local authorities to fill the gap through de-delegation from schools’ budget shares.

Reading the consultation, it is clear that LA maintained schools have been well supported by the fund, to the extent that fewer than one in five councils has issued a warning notice in each of the past three years. The funding has allowed local authorities to put support in place before a school gets into real difficulties.

This means that the children in these schools have avoided the disruption, stigma and de-motivation that come with a negative Ofsted grading. Instead, they have reaped the rewards of early intervention, funded support and locally knowledgeable improvement partners.

So if this is the impact of the funding, it rather begs the question: why remove it? I may be cynical, but I simply can’t think of any reason to do so other than to achieve a political aim – one that isn’t really about school improvement, because that is clearly already happening.

Could this have something to do with the fact that the government are still banging the academy drum? Nadhim Zahawi has so far taken a more measured tone about the Conservatives’ decade-long aspiration of a fully academised system, but is that because the DfE has changed tack?

Momentum towards academy conversion has slowed, and those that remain LA schools are not moving in the government’s direction willingly. This feels like a very underhanded tactic to force academisation through the back door.

It reads like an attempt to squeeze maintained schools to breaking point

One shouldn’t think that way about one’s government, but I know I’m not alone in harbouring the suspicion that this DfE would be willing to deliberately jeopardise the education of children in these schools to achieve its ambition. I am still waiting to see the research evidence that structural changes make a positive difference to quality of education. On the other hand, squeezing improvement funding will undoubtedly make a negative one.

Let’s not beat around the bush; the government is pulling funding from LAs and then telling them they can extract it from (maintained) school budget shares. And as there is no new money coming into the school budget share to fund this, it will simply cut those schools’ budgets.

Worse, it is only maintained schools who will pay for this, but the proposal misses the point that the grant currently covers councils’ statutory duties to all of their schools, academies included. Moving to a de-delegation model would see LA maintained schools potentially subsidising improvement in academies. Clearly, this will have a huge impact on LAs that have a larger number of academies. So I cannot see any other way of reading this than a deliberate attempt to squeeze LAs and maintained schools to breaking point and therefore force the government’s academy dream.

In essence, the schools that couldn’t be positively incentivised to convert will now be negatively incentivised to do so. And we are supposed to believe that’s a more moderate approach to academisation from the new incumbents of Sanctuary Buildings.

Even parking my cynicism, the best that can be said about this consultation is that it is a pure cost-saving exercise for the DfE – one that simply unfairly targets maintained schools. And all of it in a consultation released out of nowhere over half-term, with little fanfare and a four-week turnaround. It gives very little time for LAs to respond, could easily fall between Schools Forum meetings, and reads as a fait accompli.

The consultation closes on November 26. I urge you to read it yourselves and reach your own conclusions. And whatever your view, complete it. After all, making sure all opinions are heard is the point – and it could still force a rethink. Or am I not being cynical enough?

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