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County Council Could Use New Powers to Set Up Own Academies

Published on: 31 Mar, 2022
Updated on: 2 Apr, 2022

Primary school child.

By Julie Armstrong

local democracy reporter

Surrey County Council’s leader has said they “will definitely be looking at” using new powers to set up their own academies.

Local authorities will for the first time be allowed to set up multi-academy trusts, under the Government’s Opportunity for All schools white paper published on Monday (March 28).

Traditionally these are charitable trusts that run a number of state-funded schools independently from the council.

Established by the Labour government under Tony Blair and later embraced by Conservative governments, academies receive funding directly from central government rather than through the local authority.

Cllr Tim Oliver

Surrey’s Conservative council leader Tim Oliver said he thought the academy model “hasn’t necessarily worked” and said the new policy would enable them to reverse taking schools out of local authority control, if they had subsequently failed.

The council has not confirmed if it will do this but says it has a “keen eye” on the government proposals.

Cllr Oliver said: “County councils [or unitaries] can now set up their own academies if they want to or they can take schools out of failing academies and I think that’s a really good thing.

“I think the academy system is a mixed blessing. The education authority, I think, is still the best person to run schools.

“We lost a number of schools into academies and some of those academies have failed so this way we can set up our own academies.”

He said they would “start having conversations with schools that are in failing academy [trusts] in the very near future”.

So far this academic year, Ofsted has inspected 36 primary and secondary schools in Surrey. Of these, one quarter were judged Requires Improvement or worse – of which six are academies and three maintained by the local authority. Though only one of the three with the lowest rating of Inadequate is an academy.

When it comes to the other end of the scale they are pretty much on a par – 13 academies and 14 maintained schools were rated Good or better. This is just a snapshot of the 398 state schools in the county.

The government’s paper this week says high performing academy trusts achieve economies of scale and “use their collaborative structure to… train, retain and deploy excellent teachers where they are needed most, develop and share ambitious curricula and deliver targeted support to raise standards”.

But “where too few strong trusts exist”, says the white paper: “Local authorities will be able to establish new multi-academy trusts.

“Thus far, local authorities have not been able to set up trusts, which has been a barrier to some of the best local authority maintained schools supporting other schools to succeed.

“We want to enable trusts that work effectively for the primary schools who make up the majority of the remaining maintained sector.”

A Surrey County Council spokesperson said: “As always, we take a keen eye on government proposals particularly around issues affecting local government and our residents.

“We will await the full proposals around the education white paper and consider our response.

“We’re proud of our education system in Surrey and we will always look to work alongside our education providers, teachers and parents to ensure Surrey’s children get the best start in life.”

Less than half (47 per cent) of Surrey’s state schools are academies, slightly higher than the national picture (41 per cent), but the government report says all schools should be in, or in the process of joining, a multi-academy trust by 2030.

George Osborne, while chancellor of the exchequer, tried to make all schools academies by 2020, but U-turned after teachers threatened to strike.

Academies can employ unqualified teachers and do not have to follow the National Curriculum apart from core subjects.

Lucy Nethsingha, deputy chair of the Local Government Association’s Children and Young People Board, said: “We are pleased government has acted on our call for councils to be allowed to set up their own multi-academy trusts.

“Councils have a crucial role to play in education, from ensuring every child has a school place to turning around struggling schools, as they showed when providing vital support to schools during the pandemic.”

Of the 392 schools in Surrey that have been inspected by Ofsted (only six have not), 91 per cent are rated either Good or Outstanding, compared with 86 per cent in England.

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