Can local authorities ever work sensibly with Academies?

Francis Gilbert's picture
There's an interesting piece by Andrew Gilligan in the Telegraph here, which points out that Tory-led councils have not been too keen on Academies either. He mentions my support for my local school to become an Academy (much discussed in previous blogs) as an indication that the Academies programme is unstoppable. I'm not sure about that, but I certainly think there's no political will on left or right to bring every school back under local authority control.

The big question amongst all of this confusion is this: can local authorities work with Academies to deliver a fair education for all? I hope so, but there are many people who have their doubts.

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Paul Atherton's picture
Tue, 05/07/2011 - 14:45

Francis, If Councils track record on Free Schools are anything to go by, unquestionably not.

It's about time we reverted councillors to volunteers again. People who are actually committed to the communities in which they work rather than trainee career politicians, following party politics.

Local Labour Councils seem keen on selling any proposed free school property if they can get away with it.

Lambeth -

Camden -

Howard's picture
Tue, 05/07/2011 - 19:30

Why shouldn't the councils sell off assets that they no longer require? As a council tax payer, I would expect nothing less. If the free school proposers want the assets, let them buy them!

Allan Beavis's picture
Tue, 05/07/2011 - 20:26

I agree. Councils can't wait around for theoretical free schools, with theoretical governance, heads, teachers, staff, curriculum, "vision" and pupils, to get their funding agreement signed and cash in the bank. As the Tories are so fond of saying - it's a free market out there. Schools are best built from scratch, fit for purpose. Are any free schools actually being built? I don't think so, probably because the DfE, despite some past grandiose statements, haven't the capital lying around to hand over and build them. Instead of blaming councils for not flogging them any old premises to set up their pop-up school, Free School Founders might want to ask Gove to put his money where his mouth is and hand over land, architects, builders and landscape gardners so that they can have their own State School Eton..

Paul Atherton's picture
Tue, 05/07/2011 - 22:11

Howard, Sorry, you seem not to understand the process of setting up a Free School. They do have to buy or lease the property they wish to occupy.

The issue is with the timings of the sales and the deadlines set by certain councils.

Often these locations have been left vacant for years or decades with no movement to sell. Yet as soon as Free Schools are interested in them, suddenly a renewed interest to sell them with deadlines not accessible to the Free Schools are set.

Fortuitously, this doesn't prove to be working as buyers for these properties are invariably not forthcoming.

Paul Atherton's picture
Tue, 05/07/2011 - 22:15

Alan, Your notion of a Free market with Local Councils is beyond ludicrous.

But you've failed to provide any evidence to back up your salacious claims in the past so expect this to be no exception.

You're so keen on new buildings that the thought of great teaching doesn't seem to enter your equation.

If I'm getting my son excellent teaching, I wouldn't care if he was getting it in his front room.

Allan Beavis's picture
Tue, 05/07/2011 - 22:36

Free Schools should then enter the free market then and not expect preferential treatment, especially when Michael Gove has not offered any cash to buy or lease premises. In the business sector, a company would find it very difficult to lease offices without financial guarantees and a business plan.

Fiona Millar's picture
Wed, 06/07/2011 - 07:56

There is too little clarity about this process. Paul says the the sites have to be bought or leased - and it is actually the DFE who will be doing this not the school providers so nothing is actually 'free'. However attempts to find out how much the sites are being purchased for, or the rental arrangements, are being stone walled so we don't know how much public money is being poured into schools that may not be needed. Nor do we know if these transactions are beneficial to the local authorities that support them.
There is a loss to the local council estate if buildings are rented or sold at below their commercial value. In Camden, which is one of the cases being discussed here, there is a very strong feeling that the full price should be paid for any council land involved in free school proposals, so that money can be re-invested in schools that have lost their BSF funding.
There is nothing to stop the DFE buying this land if it is being sold on the open market, but they shouldn't be given it at a knock down price, which represents a loss to the wider school community.

Allan Beavis's picture
Tue, 05/07/2011 - 22:31

Salacious? I don't think so Paul. This isn't Penthouse.

I'm not "keen" on new buildings. Old buildings constructed and fit for purpose as schools will do fine.I suspect the Free Schoolers would love a new building but they aren't getting one are they? Perhaps you would like to provide a mind numbing list of statistics to prove that great teaching is equated exclusively with Free Schools? Difficult to find, I would imagine, seeing as none have opened and there are a finite number of "great" teachers to go around the system. Perhaps you should nab one now and have your son privately tutored in his front room?

Paul Atherton's picture
Tue, 05/07/2011 - 22:45

Fallacious (tired - missed spellcheckers change).

Lilian Baylis is a School.

You're making an argument (Again) that implies that you need a new "school best built from scratch" - but with no evidence to back that up.

Allan Beavis's picture
Tue, 05/07/2011 - 23:01

No I did not. I did not say "new", just "built from scratch" so please don't add to, or twist, my words to fit in with your argument. Many old school buildings are still fit for purpose because they were built as schools. This is presumably why Lilian Baylis is so attractive to the Free Schoolers. Do you now really need to be provided with evidence that buildings constructed as schools are fit for purpose and easier to maintain and run than, say, converted offices or bus stations? Or is it pretty much self-evident?

By the way, The Westminster Adult Education Service is being left homeless after being turfed out by Tory-run Westminster Council to make way for a new primary Free School. That should give you some satisfaction, no?

Paul Atherton's picture
Wed, 06/07/2011 - 00:08


I've made a new resolution not be drawn into pointless tirades with people who are more interested in making petty comments than addressing the issues at hand.

So take this as my last post with you.

If you're not suggesting new (which by the way I didn't quote you as saying) - what then the need for "...Land, Architects, Builders and landscape gardeners"?

Yes, I would like evidence to prove education is better because of environment (which you failed to provide last time of asking)?

And as for the WEAS your claims aren't true there either:

"Cllr Aiken said: “There is a real need for additional primary school places in the north of the city and we very much support the new ARK primary academy. We have agreed in principle that our site on Amberley Road is the most appropriate long-term location for the new school as this is in the area of Westminster where there is anticipated to be most demand for school places. This is subject, however, to the council working with the Westminster Adult Education Service, who currently occupy the site, to find suitable accommodation to ensure their services can continue to be provided. The school will serve the increasing number of parents who want high-quality places in a part of Westminster where there is an increasing shortage of reception vacancies.”

So until such time as they are actually "turfed out" this all remains conjecture - a place I know you love to reside.

Allan Beavis's picture
Wed, 06/07/2011 - 06:16


Until such time that you can provide conclusive evidence that councils are deliberately preventing Free School proposers with no cash from opening up shop in their buildings; that the grandiose claims of Free Schools (including small class sizes in their theoretical schools) will guarantee excellent results for every single student and that teaching and learning in depressing, crumbling, dilapidated buildings with scant resources has a beneficial effect on students, you might want to speak less of conjecture, make fewer assumptions and explain how a Free School could work with the LA, when it would not be funded by them or be accountable to them.

Howard's picture
Wed, 06/07/2011 - 19:55

Exactly. Unless the local authority, the body statutorily responsible for ensuring that there are sufficient schools in its area, supports a free school proposal, then it's only fair that it receives the full market value for its buildings, and the proposers of a free school should not expect a subsidy from the council tax payer for a school for which there is no real need.
Contrast this with Hackney where there is a good example of councils and academies working closely together. Here the council has identified that it needs a new secondary school in the south of the borough and is proposing a new academy, in recognition of the fact that this is the only type of new school for which it will receive funding from the Department.
With regards to the "rushing" of the sale of surplus buildings to thwart free schools, perhaps councils' eagerness to sell is, in fact, driven more by the large, upfront reductions in central government funding this year? As the Camden Councillor in the Evening Standard makes clear, Camden has a massive shortfall in its capital budget which it needs to make up.

Fiona Millar's picture
Thu, 07/07/2011 - 07:10

Yes and CAmden lost its BSF funding for all but two schools so there is an urgent need to raise capital funds to invest in the fabric of existing schools, both primary and secondary. If the Secretary of State wants to make an offer for the sites concerned, I am sure the council would be interested to hear from him.

Francis Gilbert's picture
Tue, 05/07/2011 - 15:32

I suppose my experiences in Tower Hamlets have made me think about local councillors. Generally, they're there because of the party they support. If that party is funded by the unions (as in many inner city areas) then you'll get the unions' voice represented in these decisions (ie anti-academies and free schools) but if the councillor is there because they're Tory, they are getting their funding often from local groups that are strongly pro-selection, either covert or overt (as in the case of Kent and Buckinghamshire). So what you get is local representation but not always to everyone's taste, and you do worry that ultimately these groups don't have the children's best interests at heart but those of their members. It's a very tricky problem and I'm not sure I have any answers.

Fiona Millar's picture
Tue, 05/07/2011 - 17:38

I think I am right in saying that none of the teaching unions is affiliated to the Labour Party so possibly not funding local parties in any meaningful way.

O. Spencer's picture
Tue, 05/07/2011 - 18:02

Francis, I'm struck by a part of your comment
'local groups that are strongly pro-selection, either covert or overt'

Yes, in Buckingham and Kent selection by ability is popular. What about, to pluck one school out of the air, William Ellis School.

Doesn't it overtly select 10% of its pupils based on musical aptitude? I raised the point in another discussion that musical aptitude covertly favours the much-discussed 'strong elbowed' middle-classes - instrument costs, tuition, etc.

I don't want to labour the point about selection by postcode, but I'd just add that the median house price of homes in NW5 (location of William Ellis) is about £344,000. (N.B. the median figure took into account the average price of a detached house, £2.1 million, and the average price of a flat £320,000.) Hardly what the average parent can afford.

So is William Ellis truly a comprehensive? It selects by money (house price) and ability (musical aptitude)

Fiona Millar's picture
Tue, 05/07/2011 - 18:36

Since this is obviously a dig at me - the answer to your question is yes it is really a comprehensive. Pupils arrive with a very broad range of prior achievement and the number eligible for free school meals is around 38%, well over twice the national average. Sadly many people in the local community choose private schools for their children (the figure is around 29% school age children in Camden)and much of the local catchment area is social housing. Many of the boys who live on those estates, from a wide range of social and ethnic backgrounds, are pupils at the school.
My own feeling about selection by aptitude and ability are well known. However the music aptitude places were agreed by the governors over 20 years ago. There is no audition and no requirement to play a musical instrument to pass the test. It would be a decision for the full governing body to change the admissions criteria.

Allan Beavis's picture
Tue, 05/07/2011 - 18:46

Your "selection by post code" strikes me as peculiarly abitrary. Your post code definition seems limited to just homeowners of expensive houses. This might just about work in the "leafy suburbs" you rhapsodise over elsewhere on this site, or perhaps Chelsea but it doesn't work in many areas of inner city London, where homeowners live comfortably and pleasantly alongside families in housing association accommodation and council owned houses and flats.

My recollection of NW5 is that it is very similar to my area in Hackney. Our local - and very good - comprehensive serves a community within a catchment area containing privately owned homes, council houses and flats, housing association homes, a couple of hostels. The great thing about our particular postcode is that the financially more advantaged and disadvantaged have an equal chance of getting into an over-subscribed school. The other great thing is that the homeowners here have opted to support their local school and not go selective, set up a free school or go private and abandon a school which would have faced serious challenges with an intake made up almost exclusively from children from more deprived backgrounds.

No doubt in that situation Gove would have stepped in, declared the school and failure and closed it down. Luckily, the community I have the great fortune to live amongst, is fairer-minded, altruistic and inclusive. Oh - and we have a lovely leafy park.

O. Spencer's picture
Tue, 05/07/2011 - 19:20

Not meant to be a dig at you personally Fiona - I'll leave that for those who want to resort to tittle tattle.

I accept your FSM point. But what about those trapped between social housing and school fees? They must rent in the area or buy- is that likely to happen in the catchment area? These might be what we'd call the 'squeezed middle'.

What would be really interesting to know is what proportion of those on FSM or who come from disadvantaged families at William Ellis achieve the good GCSE passes, and how many of those results are accounted for by middle-class kids.

In comparison with an inner-city school in my LA, where only 15% of pupils are on FSM, and where only 5% have English as a second language (traditional white working-class area), similar numbers to William Ellis have SEN...

...Only 5% achieved the EBacc (WE=30%), only 42% achieved an A*-C in English and Mathematics (WE=55%), with the 5 GCSE A*-C rate at 41% (WE=54%)

Clearly FSM/SEN places aren't a mitigating factor in terms of lower attainment - the reverse seems to be true in this comparison! Looking at the data, the noticable differences between the schools come in absences, with the school in question having a persistent absence figure of 5.6% (WE=3%) and teacher:pupil ratio - school in question has 20.5 pupils to a teacher (WE=13) - the question is how do we ensure this 'postcode lottery' ends?

The school in my area clearly has fewer social and educational difficulties, as evidenced by the FSM and SEN figures, yet is out-performed by a school that has a much higher intake of pupils who suffer from social and educational disadvantage.

I thought I'd put this comparison in as the school in question has applied to convert to academy status.

One last thing Fiona - bit puzzled by your post - how does William Ellis select by musical aptitude if there is no requirement to play an instrument? I see on the website that grades and prior performing experience aren't considered - so what is? Thanks. O.S.

O. Spencer's picture
Tue, 05/07/2011 - 19:28

Hello Allan,

Please see my above post for what I term the 'squeezed middle'.

I accept that schools like WE take kids from the estates as well as those from middle-class homes - the average detached property in NW5 costs £2.1 million.

Now, in between those who can afford that for a house, and those who qualify for social housing, there are countless numbers of families who struggle for a mortgage. They are effectively priced out of living in NW5 and have to live elsewhere.

Perhaps finances are not a barrier to access to your local school - but is there much in the way of data on attainment for those on FSM and those middle class kids at those schools? If the good results are accounted for mainly by the middle class kids - has the fact that parents have so nobly decided to support the local school actually helped the kids of disadvantaged homes?

Again - middle class parents can 'top up' the local school's education with everything from private tutoring to trips to museums, foreign holidays, and the other trappings of middle-class homes - plenty of books, family friends who engage them, etc.

Ultimately, is the success of such local schools mainly down to the achievements of the children of the middle classes who do send their children there?

Allan Beavis's picture
Tue, 05/07/2011 - 20:11

If the "squeezed middle " can't afford NW5, then I suggest they look elsewhere, in or out of London. I imagine the LA and the schools have enough on their plate allocating places to children who actually live in private or social housing in the catchment, rather than obssess about people who would like to live there but don't. NW5 may be an aspirational post code for you, but quite a lot of people might prefer to live in E20.

I've no doubt that the diverse mix of children at our local school helps to maintain a certain level of grades. But much more important than that, the less able children who arrive in year 7 are given support by staff and are motivated by sitting alongside more able children in the same classroom in order to do better themselves. The important thing is that the school strives for every child to reach their own potential.

And not only the middle class (squeezed or distended...) go on foreign holidays! The chavs go abroad too!! Some chavs even speak another language, possibly by virtue of growing up bilingual in a council flat! You will also find chavs in museums and sometimes even at the theatre and quite a large number of them can actually read and do buy books. I've even engaged with chavs inside an opera house and met a few who can play Tchaikovsky on the pianoforte! I even know lots of middle class people who can't afford private tutoring but that's probably because they are too poor to buy a £2.1m in Kentish Town.

O. Spencer's picture
Tue, 05/07/2011 - 20:41


I presume your comment was meant to illustrate to me that my view was perhaps patronising and paternalistic. To a degree, that might be true.

I think you also conceive of me as the typical aspiraitonal working class - wanting some kind of status, or constantly looking to move somewhere 'better' to provide for my (future) children what I didn't have myself. I think that is unfair to me.

I want to know why people who live in the school I described above cannot get for their children what those parents of William Ellis pupils can get for theirs.

The William Ellis profile is more 'deprived' in terms of FSM/SEN than the school I mentioned - yet its results are better.

I was trying to make a point about the type of home environment someone from a so-called middle class home might enjoy, as opposed to someone who doesn't come from a family that values education and learning. Of course, a foreign holiday to a popular destination for parents with limited budgets probably doesn't add to the education of a child as much as the types of places middle class parents might take their children to, and the types of activity they might do.. versus a typical beach holiday. Now of course, I'm sure many parents with little money also go on holidays to cultural destinations, likewise I'm sure some middle class families like a good beach holiday..

But surely Allan you accept the gulf in what children who come from homes which can offer their children access to 'extras' as opposed to those homes which do not value education.

I desperately want to see that gulf vanish.

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 06/07/2011 - 10:13

O Spencer - your comments about teacher ratio and pupil absence figures are thought-provoking. The OECD highlights teacher ratio as a factor in the inequity of resource allocation in the UK. The UK is one of a fewer number of OECD countries which targets socio-economically advantaged schools with more teachers. There are a number of other factors which the OECD considers could contribute to pupil underachievement and I will list these in a new thread. However, one thing the OECD doesn't seem to consider is pupil absence but this would seem to be an obvious cause of underachievement - a pupil can't benefit fully from education if s/he is persistently absent whatever the causes of that absence might be.

Francis Gilbert's picture
Tue, 05/07/2011 - 20:18

Fiona, I take your point about the unions not funding the Labour Party. However, I think this area is complex because within the Labour Party there are certainly local councilors who are very "pro-union" and then, possibly the "Blairites", who want to distance themselves. But it's very complex issue and not one I could begin to say I was expert on at all.

O. Spencer's picture
Tue, 05/07/2011 - 20:59

Very good point Francis.

Maybe the teaching unions didn't affiliate to Labour because of the rise of Blairism and the move away from traditional Clause 4 socialism? Food for thought.

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 06/07/2011 - 10:27

This extract from the NUT history explains the union's disillusionment with Blair and New Labour:

"The Union had high hopes when in 1997 Tony Blair’s New Labour was elected with “Education Education Education” as a main campaign slogan. However, despite investing heavily in schools – including in new buildings – reducing class sizes and committing itself to ending child poverty, the Blair regime proved a disappointment."

"It continued the previous government’s commercialisation of education, brought in the private finance initiative, and developed foundation and specialist schools and city academies".

"Despite Labour’s supposed support for equality of opportunity, Blair himself denigrated ‘bog-standard comprehensives’."

Allan Beavis's picture
Tue, 05/07/2011 - 21:56

I think you caricaturise the working and middle classes far too much. In any case, there are middle class homes who don't particularly value education just as there are working class homes who value it greatly and encourage their children to do well at school. The problem isn't the "gulf" between these two groups, but how to tackle and break the cycle of no expectation/low attainment and poverty. Until poverty and the problems associated with it are eradicated, the education system will forever be challenged with how to raise expectation and aspiration for children from severely deprived backgrounds. Successive governments have failed to tackle this head on. What is needed are huge amounts of investment in social care; a strengthening of co-operation, information sharing and join action by social services, the local education authority and police and, finally, more cash and resources for schools committed to raise the educational and social aspirations of children in care, from broken and dysfunctional homes, caring for siblings or their parents, living below the poverty line. This government appears to think that transforming the schools landscape into Academies and Free Schools will be the wand to magic away these challenges. I doubt it will - it just means the poor and desperate will be segregated off somewhere to ....what? Rot somewhere, forgotten, ignored, unacknowledged as they were in the genteel parlours of Victorian times?

It is difficult, when you are struggling to survive, to "value education". Much easier is the decision to forget about not being able to afford a £2.1m house in NW5.

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