Councils Allowed to set up Academy trusts in shake-up of Schools System

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White paper could pave way for independent regulator, while ‘parent pledge’ dismissed as gimmick

Primary school classroom
Nadhim Zahawi, the education secretary, described the parent pledge policy as ‘levelling up in action’. Photograph: lovethephoto/Alamy

Plans to redraw England’s schools system will allow councils to establish their own academy trusts and give schools the opportunity to leave failing ones.

The policies are set out in a schools white paper to be published on Monday and include a “parent pledge” for families to request additional support for their children, which has been dismissed as a “gimmick” by school leaders.

Central to the white paper is a push for academy trusts to take over the running of schools in England, with a 2030 target date for converting council-maintained schools into academies and for them to have joined or be preparing to join a multi-academy trust (Mat).

The white paper also calls for a regulatory review of Mats, potentially paving the way for an independent regulator of school trusts and their operations.

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Academies are state-funded schools with higher degrees of autonomy in governance, use of resources and curriculum. But recently the number of schools converting to academy status has slowed, with a majority of primary schools and a fifth of secondary schools retaining their links to local authorities.

Provisions in the white paper would allow local authorities to establish Mats and gain powers to encourage schools to join a Mat “where that is the right approach for local schools”, in areas lacking high-performing Mats. Councils may also be given significant new powers to force academies to accept children who are without a school place.

Ministers say the change would help overcome the objections of the remaining maintained and voluntary-aided schools to becoming academies, and streamline England’s complicated school governance system.

Lucy Nethsingha, of the children and young people board at the Local Government Association, said: “We are pleased government has acted on our call for councils to be allowed to set up their own Mats. Councils have an excellent track record in providing a high-quality education for pupils, with 92% of maintained schools rated by Ofsted as outstanding or good – a higher proportion than any other type of school.”

The white paper will also include new ways to regulate academy trusts, and policies to encourage standalone academies to join established Mats, in a further streamlining that would reduce the number of trusts running single schools.

Matt Dunkley, the director of children’s services for Kent county council, said: “Streamlining of the current fragmented school system is well overdue, and we appreciate the proposals to match local authorities’ responsibilities as system leaders with the appropriate powers to meet those responsibilities.”

One of the most significant new policies for school leaders would allow schools to switch between Mats by appealing to the new regulator. Currently, schools are unable to leave Mats unless they are “rebrokered” by the Department for Education (DfE) in extreme circumstances, such as the financial collapse of a Mat.

The white paper aims for more schools to join what it defines as “strong” multi-academy trusts, based on quality, inclusivity and measures of improvement.

The DfE said the white paper would include a new pledge to every parent that schools will intervene if their children fall behind in English or maths. The pledge will mean schools are to identify children who need help and keep parents informed about their child’s progress.

Nadhim Zahawi, the education secretary, described the policy as “levelling up in action” but the pledge drew criticism for replicating what schools already do.

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“The parent pledge seems like a policy gimmick designed to grab headlines,” said Geoff Barton, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders. “In reality, any child who falls behind in English and maths will already receive timely and evidence-led support and this is already communicated to parents via existing channels such as parents’ evenings.”

Barton said the danger of the pledge was that it “will build an expectation of an entitlement” and create tension between parents and teachers.

Bridget Phillipson, the shadow education secretary, said: “Parents will be surprised to hear that a focus on helping every child develop good reading, writing and maths skills is a new discovery for the education secretary.”

Munira Wilson, the Liberal Democrats’ education spokesperson, said: “It’s been six years since the last schools white paper yet clearly these half-baked plans needed even longer in the oven.” She argued that more funding was needed for catch-up provision, rather than meeting “hollow” targets.


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