Councils would regain powers to intervene in struggling academy schools, reversing the trend of increasing autonomy, under radical proposals from schools minister David Laws.
The Liberal Democrat minister will argue in a speech on Thursday that the system of school governance introduced by former education secretary Michael Gove has abandoned schools that converted from local authority control to standalone academy status and now find themselves without the resources or support they need to improve.
Laws wants responsibility for improvements to be handed from the Department for Education to a “middle tier” of local authorities and academy chains, backed by successful schools and headteachers who will be rewarded for helping local underperforming peers. This proposed middle tier would potentially assist all schools in need of improvement, not just academies.
“No government is ever going to magic away every single weak school, that would be a delusion. But I think in a good and realistic scenario, where we had an effective middle tier, we would have 2,000 fewer schools in the [lowest] categories of requiring improvement or special measures,” Laws said.
“Potentially hundreds of thousands of pupils would be getting a much better education as a result.”
More than 4,000 primary and secondary schools are currently rated “requires improvement” or “inadequate” out of 19,000 mainstream schools in England. Laws says if those schools were overseen by one of the best local authorities or academy chains, 1,900 would be rated “inadequate” or “requires improvement”.
The announcement,which follows Labour’s proposals to penalise private schools that fail to aid the state sector, is a sign that education is a hotly contested political issue ahead of the next general election.
Tristram Hunt’s plans to remove council tax breaks enjoyed by independent schools if they didn’t partner with state schools were dismissed by Laws, though he admitted it was “disappointing” that some private schools didn’t do more.
“My main thought is that this is really a side issue in relation to all the big issues that are going to drive state school improvements,” Laws said. “When I look at it against teacher quality, funding, early years education, system leadership – it’s going to make a tiny impact. I think this is another example of Tristram pursuing things which are side issues rather than having something to say about the really big debates in education.”
In particular, Laws is concerned about the “converter academies” that sprang up under Gove, attracted by better funding and government approval.
“Some of them remain excellent schools, but some remain schools with the same weaknesses they had when they converted. Many of them on are on this list of hundreds of academies that the department has where we are very concerned about their performance,” Laws said.
“Where there is a converter academy that is not part of a chain and requires improvement or in special measures, I think in the future local authorities should be empowered and have a responsibility to bring about improvement in its leadership and governance.”
The move would be a shot in the arm for councils and their role in education, and a dramatic change after years of efforts by both Labour and Conservative ministers to remove schools from local authority supervision through the creation of academies.
Laws’ proposal also offers councils a bigger role than Labour’s proposals for local school officers, while the DfE contends that its new network of eight regional commissioners responsible for academy oversight will solve the problem.
The Liberal Democrat minister, who served under Gove and his successor Nicky Morgan, retorts that the DfE is concentrating its efforts on schools labelled inadequate and ignoring the thousands of others that Ofsted inspectors also say need improvement.
“We’ve got an intervention system designed by the DfE which is really designed around the assumption that weak schools are the responsibility of the department. Because we have limited official capacity, we only have got the resources to intervene in weaker schools.
“That essentially means you end up focusing on 500 of the weakest schools out of 24,000. But my point is that there are 4,000 schools that require improvement or are in special measures, and my worry is that the Labour party and Conservative party, through their lack of belief in a middle tier, are letting down thousands of schools,” Laws said.
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