Local Authorities (LAs) have a statutory duty to manage the supply of school places. But a report by the Local Government Association and the Department for Education (LGA/Dfe) in 2012 said LAs could find it difficult to fulfil their legal duty as more schools become academies. The challenges are these:
Ensuring a sufficient future supply of school places
1 Academies are their own admission authorities and are not obliged to expand in order to cater for a growth in the number of children locally.
2 Academies may require incentives to persuade them to accept more pupils. This would be “particularly problematic in view of the more tightly constrained capital budgets”.
3 Although free schools are viewed as one solution, the report found that “the very late notification” of some proposals was “counter-productive” and resulted in much “abortive work”. The report said that free schools were “often more related to the desire to meet parental choice than to ensure the provision of sufficient places at the right time and in the right place for the area”.
4 The process of finding an acceptable solution could be “both time-consuming and inefficient”.
Managing potential over-supply of school places
The ability of LAs to manage the number of school places locally is hampered by Government policy which encourages academy conversion and the establishment of free schools. This is because:
1 Academies can increase their size without consulting with LAs
2 Free schools can open without reference to LAs.
The report described two scenarios:
1 Where a Local Authority must manage the closure of a “poor” school when it becomes unviable because a better-performing school has expanded.
2 Where a Local Authority needs to respond to a situation where a well-performing school is put at risk because other schools have expanded.
Scenario One raised these questions:
1 How can LAs manage the smooth and speedy transition of pupils remaining in the “poor” school to places in other schools?
2 How can LAs work effectively with other schools, including academies, to find sufficient places for the displaced pupils especially when academies don’t have to take extra pupils?
3 What authority (LA or Department for Education) is responsible if the school threatened with closure is an academy or free school?
Scenario Two raised this question:
How can LAs deal with the possible closure of a school when this is not in the best interests of pupils or parents? This may happen where:
1 Pupil numbers in the area are static or declining.
2 Most parents send their children to local schools.
3 All local schools are good or better.
4 Where a rise in the number of selective places or in schools with a similar academic emphasis would narrow choice.
Both scenarios raised a further question: how would LAs respond to the possible closure of a school when school numbers are expected to rise in a few years time and the places available in the school threatened with closure would be needed? This is the problem faced by Lincolnshire County Council in February 2013. An Academy Trust wants to close a small rural secondary school and send the children to another of its academies in nearby Grantham. But the Council Leader says Grantham is a “growth area” and will need its secondary school places in 2020 when the extra primary pupils reach secondary school.
The report warned that in the autonomous system envisaged by the Government it would be schools not the LA which would decide “the future pattern of provision”.