Tuesday, 28 April 2009

Will Tory councils block more academies?

I'm delighted that Nick Gibb, the shadow schools minister is a fan, as he told the Commons yesterday, of this "excellent, well-written blog." My blog posting on Saturday was critical of the Government response to the Tory announcement on primary academies; it also pointed out one or two inconsistencies in the Tory policy, particularly where it comes to ensuring phonics in the curriculum, on which Gibb is a redoubtable campaigner.

But curriculum delivery may not be the only problem facing the Tories on academies and school reform. The Tories have been winning a lot more councils in recent years, which means that their local government lobby is growing ever stronger. Their education leader on the LGA and Birmingham City Council's chair of children's services, Councillor Les Lawrence, is not exactly a fan (Q81) of the Swedish schools model embraced by the Tories, as he told the schools select committee recently:
If you look at the Swedish system you see that there is now quite a lot of debate as to whether the free school system has caused a degree of dissent and division within the communities themselves. As I understand it, looking at recent debates in Sweden, they are beginning to wonder whether they need to go in the opposite direction, having been through the experiment-it has taken them about 20 years to create 900 of these schools, separate from the other more traditional schools.
And Labour MPs have pointed to examples of Tory councils blocking academies. My former home council of Merton has been a particular problem in this regard since the Tories regained it, as local MP Siobhain McDonagh reminded the Commons yesterday when she pointed to academies, one of them supported by the Tory peer and philanthropist Lord Harris, that were opposed by local Tory councillors who didn't want more good schools in the less advantaged part of the borough:
In 2006, we opened two new city academies in Mitcham in my constituency, in the teeth of fierce opposition from the Conservative councillors. Those two schools have now doubled the number of pupils getting five GCSE passes. Will my right hon. Friend congratulate the sponsors, Lord Harris and the Church of England, as well as all the staff and the pupils at those schools? Will he also warn people that although those on the Conservative Front Bench may have converted to supporting academies, Conservative local councillors on the ground do not want schools in deprived areas?
Similar problems have apparently emerged in Dudley and with the Tory opposition group in Rotherham. The opposition front bench may wish to give promoters the right to sidestep such opposition and could simply remove the right of local authorities to establish new community schools, but that may not be enough. Local government still has a lot of say in planning decisions and owns a lot of sites for potential schools.

Indeed one reason why academies have taken off - including in Birmingham - is because the Government has persuaded local government that they are an important part of regeneration in their areas and got them on side. The Tories need to be clear what role they see for local government in their schools policies if they are serious about delivering them.


Joe Nutt said...

I'm pleased to hear that Academies have "taken off" in Birmingham. I spent almost 2 years working on the BSF project in the city and became very familiar with the academies' issues and my experience was that all the Academies' opponents were firmly lined up in "old" labour ranks...Fiona Millar? Not to mention the anti-academies alliance.

Lera said...

I can't remember the exact details, but isn't it Birmingham where there is a huge issue over the reluctance by the council to grant a Sikh group the right to open and run an Academy? I saw Andrew Adonis being asked about it a couple of times at public meetings.