An academy in Knowsley, Merseyside, is under fire after it announced plans to close its sixth form, which will bring to an end A-level provision in the borough.
Halewood academy was the last school offering A-levels in the area but is now consulting on plans to close its sixth form to new students from September as a result of financial cutbacks and dwindling pupil numbers.
If agreed, the decision means that students in Knowsley, which is the worst-performing local authority at GCSE in England, will have to travel to neighbouring boroughs if they want to study A-levels.
Labour’s shadow education secretary, Lucy Powell, condemned the move, saying it went to the heart of what is wrong with “the fragmented education system” the Tories are creating and flagged up concerns about government plans to convert all schools to academies in the next six years.
She said: “Local pupils, parents, Knowsley council and MPs want to ensure sixth-form provision for young people in the area yet no one is accountable for the decision this school is making.
“It beggars belief that this will leave Knowsley with no A-level provision, damaging aspiration and the choices of young people.”
The Halewood consultation follows a decision by two other A-level providers in the area, Knowsley Community college and All Saints Catholic High school, to stop offering A-level courses last September.
Only two other local authorities in England currently have no state-funded schools with sixth-form provision – the City of London and the Scilly Isles.
The decision at Halewood will once again raise concerns about the quality of education provision in Knowsley, which has a population of 146,000. Education in the borough has been criticised by the chief inspector of schools, Sir Michael Wilshaw, who highlighted the growing educational divide between north and south in a recent speech.
Official figures released in January showed that Knowsley was once again the worst-performing local authority last summer despite improved results: 37.5% of pupils received five passes at GCSE grade C or higher including English and maths, compared with 35.4% the previous year. An average 57.1% of pupils at state schools in England achieve the government benchmark of five good passes.
Local residents have expressed their anger to the Liverpool Echo, which broke the story, raising concerns about local accountability when it was unable to get answers about the closure from either the academy or the regional schools commissioner who looks after academies in the area.
Reader Colin Ascott told the Echo: “That is scary. So nobody can be held to account. These privately run academies can do whatever they want and nobody can do anything.”
MP for Garston and Halewood Maria Eagle, who is also shadow culture secretary, said the situation at Halewood academy raised wider concerns about the government’s “mismanagement” of schools in England.
“Councils such as Knowsley have had responsibility for schools taken away from them to be replaced by government-backed academies. This removes choice from local people over education in their area and has serious consequences for young people in terms of options and accessibility to further education.”
Halewood academy principal Gary Evans was unavailable for comment to the Guardian on Tuesday, but a statement on the school’s website said: “The governing body of Halewood academy has voted in favour of a proposal to remove the sixth-form provision from the school.
“The aim is for the school to be able to respond to what parents want locally while ensuring that the school makes most effective use of its resources. This will allow the school to provide a high quality provision for pupils aged 11-16 and sustain successful outcomes.”
A Department for Education spokesperson said the regional schools commissioner had been working closely with Halewood academy since it went into special measures and the school would be transferred to a new sponsor later this year.
“Halewood academy is currently consulting with its local community on closing its sixth-form intake,” the spokesperson said. “Following that consultation, should the school still wish to go ahead with that closure, it must make the case to the Education Funding Agency and the regional school commissioner that post-16 provision in the area would not be adversely affected by the closure before they are given permission to close it.”
A council report on A-level provision in Knowsley last December concluded that the number of pupils leaving Knowsley secondary schools with the necessary GCSE grades to be successful at A-level was too small to support viable A-level provision within Knowsley.
It said there were colleges outside of the borough and within easy travelling distance which offered high quality A-level provision and already attracted a large number of Knowsley learners.
“The amount of investment required to establish new A-level provision is unaffordable and unviable, particularly in the current financial environment and in view of the high quality existing competition which Knowsley residents are currently choosing to access.”
A spokesperson for Knowsley council said the academy had confirmed the sixth form will be kept open for year 12 pupils if they chose to finish their studies at Halewood, adding: “Halewood academy converted to an academy in September 2013. As an academy, it receives its funding direct from government and not from Knowsley council.
“Whilst we, as the local authority, do work with all our local academies to help them improve education standards, as an academy the school is ultimately accountable to the regional school commissioner, and not the local council.
“We will continue to work with the academy to ensure that individual pupils are supported to complete their studies. We will also work with the academy to make progress and hope that it will be possible to restore sixth-form provision at some future point.”
This article was written by Sally Weale Education correspondent, for theguardian.com on Tuesday 29th March 2016 20.19 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010