Inquiry into the future role of the local authority in the context of more schools becoming Academies
Written submission by Ask Parents First
About Ask Parents First
Ask Parents First (APF) is a parent campaign group that was formed in April this year in response to concerns that schools in the city were converting to academy status without meaningful consultation, and sometimes in direct opposition to the wishes of the school community.
When a school becomes an academy the rights of pupils and parents are altered and irreversible changes take effect that will affect not only the current school community, but generations of families to come. It is the position of APF that parents and pupils, as the primary stakeholders, have an unanswerable right to open and democratic consultation on changes that will affect them so deeply before any decision is taken about the future of the school.
This submission begins by highlighting a number of issues and concerns experienced by parents and children either during or following academy conversion or academy consultation in Birmingham. The submission does not necessarily represent a definitive list of all the issues or concerns parents across the city may have experienced in relation to academies. The issues that we are addressing in the submission are as follows:
- Inadequate or non-existent consultation
- Reduced accountability to parents.
- Reduced parental involvement and influence in the school, including at governance level
- Insufficient information for parents to facilitate informed school choice
The submission then concludes by making six recommendations for improving the experience of parents and children in Birmingham in the context of more schools becoming Academies.
Issues and concerns
1. Inadequate or non-existent consultation
1a. The consultations that have taken place when schools have chosen voluntarily to convert to academy have been inadequate. An example is the consultation at Bournville School and Sixth Form Centre in 2011;
- Consultation took place after the application to convert had been submitted. Governors were therefore consulting on a decision that had already been made.
- Consultation was based on incomplete and biased information that failed to adequately inform stakeholders of the implications of academy conversion -including the way in which their legal rights would be affected.
- Impact assessments were not conducted so Governors were unable to answer questions on how academy status would affect specific groups of pupils.
- Not all stakeholders were consulted, for example parents of Year 13 pupils were not invited to the consultation meetings and parents at feeder schools were not consulted at all.
1b. The 2010 Academies Act states that governors may consult with ‘who they see fit’ and the DfE’s guidance to schools states that consultation may take place either before or after an application to convert has been made. However this runs contrary to other laws governing consultation that apply whenever any public body consults. David Wolfe provides a good summary of the laws on consultation. As a result many school communities have been denied the quality of consultation they are entitled to in law and schools have, perhaps unwittingly, been breaking the law. We are aware that the previous administration in Birmingham was advised by their legal team that the 2010 Academies Act is legally flawed with regard to consultation, and that this issue is partially addressed in Appendix 1 of the Birmingham City Council guidance document Information for schools considering converting to Academy status published in June 2011 which states;
School needs to consult on the intention to seek a change of status before it contacts the DfE. Under Public Law to consult on a decision already made to change status leaves the school open to legal challenges.
However, we believe this advice has been missed or dismissed by some (possibly many) schools.
1c. At Primary Schools across the city pressure has been applied by DfE representatives and LA officers to convert to sponsored academy status. We have heard from individual governors how threats to remove Governing Bodies and sack Headteachers have been used to coerce targeted schools into ‘choosing’ sponsored academy status. An example of a school that is in the early stages of this process, having received a visit from the DfE and Local Authority in early September, is Foundry Primary School. We have heard from NUT officers how, although the DfE does not in fact have the power to force academy status unless the school is in a category of OFSTED, language is used carefully to imply that greater powers do exist. Governors presumably are either not sufficiently well-informed or do not think they can question the combined authority of a DfE official and a LA officer. The Governors typically respond by deciding that it is better to agree to convert themselves and have a say over the choice of sponsor, than to be removed and have a sponsor imposed on the school. These decisions have been taken by Governing Bodies across the city ‘in the best interests of the children’ without any consultation whatsoever with parents and other stakeholders of the school. A climate of secrecy and fear has resulted. The process as a whole has been described by Richard Burden MP as a culture of bullying.
1d. An example of where parents have discovered the plans in spite of the secrecy and campaigned for proper consultation is West Heath Primary School. At West Heath parents recently achieved a reprieve from the DfE, however, at many other schools plans have remained well-hidden from parents until well advanced. The first that parents hear is in a letter informing them that academy conversion will take place and of the choice of sponsor. Recent examples of this are Mansfield Green Primary School and Woodview Primary School.
2. Reduced accountability to parents
2a. Kings Norton Girls School converted to academy in 2011 despite significant opposition from parents and the school community. Subsequently the academy has dropped two OFSTED grades from Outstanding to Satisfactory. Concerned parents have been left wondering what went wrong and how the situation can be remedied now that the school is operating outside the remit of the Local Authority. They have sought to engage with the academy leadership but they have found this difficult and they do not feel that their concerns have been addressed. They have approached the Local Authority for information and support, but, as Kings Norton Girls’ School is no longer a Local Authority school, no support has been forthcoming. These parents and their children are still citizens of the city of Birmingham, and yet they have no locally elected representative they can turn to for support on issues affecting state education. This is especially unjust as many parents have lost their right to local accountability when the school converted to academy against their wishes.
3. Reduced parental involvement and influence in the school, including at governance level
3a. Parent-governors at Montgomery Primary School in Sparkbrook have been powerless to influence the actions of the soon-to-be sponsor AET in managing the transition from community school to sponsored academy. As a result two parent governors and a community governor have resigned over broken promises to consult with parents on changes to uniform and school name and a conviction that the Governing Body will be no more than a puppet organisation under AET. A second consultation with parents was promised by the sponsor following the first but never happened. The resigning parent governors report that there has been little dialogue between AET and the governing body since they made the choice of sponsor and this is worrying as the school is in ‘Special Measures’ with the governors feeling unsure of the future with AET.
4. Insufficient information for parents to facilitate informed school choice
4a. Parents and pupils have very few legal rights in an academy because they are not party to the funding agreement, which is a contract between the Secretary of State and the Academy Trust or Sponsor, and most of the educational regulations that exist apply only to ‘schools’ and not to ‘academies’. David Wolfe provides a good explanation of the problems that this poses for parents and the related question of whether it is possible for parents to enforce a funding agreement on his blog. This situation is further complicated by the fact that each academy’s funding agreement can differ significantly. Some schools may abide by certain regulations, others may not.
4b. As the numbers of academies increase, so it becomes increasingly difficult for parents to make informed school choices. Few parents that we speak to are actually aware that the regulations they tend to take for granted as existing in all schools may not apply to their children in academies. These regulations cover everything from quality of food to exclusions, from funding for school trips to composition of the Governing Body. Those who are aware are faced with the near-impossible task of accessing, unpicking and comparing funding agreements, aspects of which may in any case have been overridden by subsequent acts of parliament. This is an issue that affects all parents, but is especially pertinent to parents whose children have statements of special need, as not all schools will be equally well able to meet their child’s needs and school choice may therefore be of more-than-usual importance.
- That the Local Authority ensures there is a clear expectation that schools considering academy conversion, whether voluntarily or under pressure from the DfE, conduct open and democratic consultation while matters are at a formative stage. That clear guidance be provided for schools on what constitutes open and democratic consultation and that this include a parent ballot, as used to be the case for grant maintained status. A model that APF considers useful is the guidance provided by Norwich County Council. Where a school does not comply with this expectation the LA should conduct a consultation itself.
- There should be a review of parental involvement of parents in academies.
- That the LA provides unbiased, balanced and easily accessible information for both school governors and parents on the implications of conversion to academy status. That this includes training/information sessions for councillors and school governors.
- That academies be invited to sign up to a ‘gold standard’ on matters affecting the rights of pupils and parents, including provision for pupils with special needs or disability.
- That the LA publish a citizens’ list of what academies do and don’t sign up to in order that parents can make more informed decisions about school choice. This should make it clear to parents what legal protections will or will not apply for each school and should be formulated so that parents can be assured that academies that sign up offer at least the same protections as local Authority schools
- That there should be a regular forum for parents and governors of academies where people can seek advice or air concerns.
 David Wolfe A Can of Worms http://davidwolfe.org.uk/wordpress/an-introduction-to-academies-and-the-law