Reduce fragmentation in the operational specifics
There are various ways in which fragmentation could be reduced. For example, there is no obvious reason why the Local Government Ombudsman can scrutinise the admissions and exclusion decision processes for maintained schools but not academies; and there is a strong case to be made for simplifying admissions arrangements, and ensuring all schools teach broadly the same ‘national’ curriculum. It is also unclear why the rules which the DfE considers appropriate to apply to the latest generation of academies should not, at the very least, apply to all academies.
We suggest that the current, incoherent and fragmented, set of provisions are brought together in a single framework around aspects of school governance. One key aspect of that could be in restoring a common format for governing bodies, including restoring to academies the requirements for parental, staff, and community involvement. Such a framework could be more or less prescriptive for each area, as considered appropriate.
The template for this could be the way in which common frameworks for special educational needs (SEN) and exclusions were introduced for academies and maintained schools, overriding the previous incoherence between maintained schools and academies, and between one academy and another. This would require statutory intervention. In this case, parliament would set the overall framework, not the particular Secretary of State or RSC of the moment. A similar approach could be adopted with respect to teachers’ pay and conditions.
There is a clear need for more transparency regarding the governance of academy trusts, which points to things like requiring trusts to publish SEN policies and expenditure for individual academies in the same format as maintained schools. Such transparency arrangements could include common statutory arrangements around governance, the operation of academy governing bodies, and so on.
Autonomy for schools?
The notion of what it means to be a school and the idea that schools have autonomy and some existence as organisations has been discarded in many instances. Addressing this would require the reinstatement of the legal identityof the many schools currently run by MATs and (assuming that the contractual/academy model remains part of the system) would require there to be a contract for each academy, even if a ‘MAT-type’ support/advisory layer were to remain. Restoring the autonomy and legal identity of schools could allow for the mobility of academies between MATs. A further opportunity – assuming the continuation of academy type entities – would be the standardisation (by statute) of the contractual arrangements (rather than the existing multiplicity of different contracts).
Restore local democratic oversight
We propose that the contracts under which academies operate (newly separated out in relation to MATs) should be with the local authority rather than the Secretary of State (or the eight RSCs). This would restore the linkage with local authorities whilst (assuming this is what is wanted) keeping the relationship primarily contractual rather than statutory. It would be a shift from central government (and indeed RSCs) to local government, but without reducing school freedom.
Existing MAT organisations, where they add real value (in actually supporting the local running of schools, for example) could continue as a service which individual schools could call on, perhaps by buying in services from it, just as maintained schools can choose to buy in support services from the local authority or from external providers.
The presumption of a ‘free school’ when a new school is needed should be removed so that local authorities are able to ensure sufficiency of local supply.
These measures would still leave in place two parallel strands overall: maintained schools and academies, albeit with both linked to local authorities (rather than central government) and with common overall requirements around the specifics of governance and operations. Stopping there would have the attraction of not actually changing the core legal notion of an academy – a school run by a trust under contract with the state – and so would be a relatively modest, if powerful, step to take.
A further step, would be to allow academies (newly freed from chains by being reinstated as separate legal entities) to become maintained schools. A new legal framework directly enabling such a transition would be required. At present the only way an academy can become maintained again is for the academy to close and then for the local authority to open a new maintained school, the reverse of how academies were created from maintained schools pre-Academies Act 2010. That process could be made compulsory, but is not necessary to deal with many of the issues and challenges which have, in practice, caused the problems with the academies programme as it has developed over time.