A historic milestone has been reached in England’s educational system following the release of new data from the Department for Education last week showing that a majority of state funded secondary schools in England are now Academies. In response, the Accord Coalition has called for more safeguards to be introduced, to help ensure that state funded schools do not misuse their autonomy to act in narrow and exclusive ways to the detriment of pupils.
Under the flagship Government education policy, Academy status offers schools a range of freedoms not enjoyed by schools maintained by their local authority. This includes what schools teach, as Academies are free from any compulsory prescribed curricular and are free, for example, to determine the kind of Religious Education they provide.
Over the last two and half years several other major safeguards have been removed by Government. Schools rated as “outstanding” have been freed from automatic OFSTED inspection and have had any application to become an Academy school fast tracked, meaning that the frequency of inspection has been reduced at many of the same schools being given greater powers and freedom.
Meanwhile, the 2011 Education Act resulted in state funded schools in England no longer being inspected by OFSTED upon their effectiveness at promoting community cohesion. In addition, the Act has meant that local authorities no longer have to organise school admission forums, which among other functions, help ensure that admission policies in a local area are fair and adhere to the School Admissions Code. Schools within the Academy sector have also been accused of failing to abide by relevant laws with regard to permanent exclusions.
Chair of the Accord Coalition, Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain MBE said, ‘As the Government gives schools greater freedom, it follows that it should also ensure more oversight, not less, to help make certain that those new freedoms are not abused. Accord believes it unwise that many safeguards have been taken away, and advocates a range of reforms be made.
‘These include ensuring that all schools are again inspected upon how effectively they promote community cohesion; that there is greater oversight of local school admission arrangements to ensure they are fair and sound, and, crucially, that guidance is produced to ensure that all state funded schools, including Academies, teach Religious Education that it broad, balanced and objective.
‘It is vital that pupils receive an education that offers them a pathway to better citizenship and a proper understanding of one’s neighbour in today’s multi-belief Britain. Schools should be engines rooms of cohesiveness and mutual understanding, providing their pupils with a broad curriculum, where their horizons are widened, not blinkered. The is a real danger that Academy Schools, including Free Schools, are compounding the problem of social division – by giving the schools more power to do their own thing, but ignore the greater good, such as in admissions and the curriculum. We do not want schools that are inward-looking and self-serving.’
The latest analysis today (February 21st) of data from EduBase – a Government database of schools in England and Wales – shows that 50.61% of mainstream state funded secondary schools are now Academies. Of the current 3276 state funded mainstream secondary schools, 1658 are Academies, with 58 of this number being Free Schools, which in law are a type of Academy school. 1658 / 3276 x 100 = 50.61%.
The Office of the Children’s Commissioner’s report into school exclusions, ‘They never give up on you’, published in March 2012, recommended that:
‘The Secretary of State must fully investigate, as a matter of urgency, accusations made to the Inquiry regarding some Academies failing to abide by relevant law with regard to exclusions. If these allegations are proven, he should apply appropriate sanctions to the schools concerned. Separately, clarity is urgently needed about the role of the Education Funding Agency, the DfE and the Secretary of State in relation to Academy complaints and oversight. The Education Funding Agency must be resourced to handle, in a timely fashion, complaints raised by parents about the behaviour of Academies where that behaviour is alleged to be in breach of contracts and funding agreements between school and state.’ (P29)