Tory councillors are questioning academies plan

Coun Arthur Barker.

Coun Arthur Barker.

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THE TORY councillor responsible for education in North Yorkshire has warned that “it will be a big ask” to convert all state schools into academies.

Coun Arthur Barker’s comments comes as his Conservative counterpart in David Cameron’s own constituency strongly criticised the Government’s plans.

The Department for Education have said that all state schools will be converted by 2022.

Those which have not started to move toward academy conversion by 2020 will be directed to do so.

However the plan has come under fire from councillors - including Conservatives running authorities with large numbers of rural schools.

Coun Barker told the Guardian: “I’ve no objection to academies. But you need time to do it. You need bodies on the ground. You need dedicated officers to do it.

“One of my concerns is the availability of capacity. It’s a big ask. It’s a lot of schools nationally.”

The criticism was stronger from elsewhere.

Melinda Tilley, the cabinet member for education at Oxfordshire County Council - which includes the Prime Minister’s Witney seat - warned small village schools could be at risk if academy chains decided they were no longer viable.

She told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “It means a lot of little primary schools will be forced to go into multi-academy trusts and I just feel it’s the wrong time, in the wrong place, for little primary schools to be forced into doing this.

“I’m afraid there could be a few little village schools that get lost in all of this.” Asked if she was “disappointed” by the Government, she said that was “probably putting it very mildly”.

“I’m fed up with diktats from above saying you will do this and you won’t do that. This is not why I became a Conservative.” Her concerns were echoed by other senior Conservatives in local government who face losing control of schools in their local areas.

Roger Gough, Conservative councillor in charge of education in Kent, said the policy would cost his local authority several million pounds.

“I don’t think there is demonstrable evidence that there is a systemic improvement in performance and certainly not anything that would justify upheaval on this scale,” he told the BBC.

Peter Edgar from Hampshire County Council said: “To force all schools would be ridiculously expensive and in my view the wrong thing to do and also could cause in the interim a drop in standards in all our schools.”

Schools Minister Nick Gibb said the plan would give “more autonomy” to successful headteachers.

He said: “If you can get a headteacher who is running a successful school, to have that school become part of a multi-academy trust where he can spread that formula, he can use his expertise to take the winning formula that made his school a successful school and change weaker schools into the kind of school that he was leading, that is the essence of the multi-academy trust programme.”

Mr Gibb insisted that forcing schools to make the change was “not diktat, this is about giving freedom and devolution to the school level”.

While some local authorities were “strong”, there were “many weak local authorities that have not been as rigorous on ensuring that under-performing schools improve the academic standards of the children than they should be” “The academies programme means we take swift action when schools or academies are under-performing,” he said.

Challenged on whether the Government hoped to break the power of the education unions by taking schools out of council control, Mr Gibb said: “It’s not the agenda. Of course, academies do have freedoms over pay and conditions - it means they can pay teachers more to attract teachers in those shortage subjects.”

Shadow education secretary Lucy Powell said: “The alliance against the plans to force all primary and secondary schools in England to become academies is growing as grassroots Conservatives raise important concerns about this top-down, costly reorganisation of our schools.

“Ministers have failed to make any compelling argument for why these plans, which nobody wants and schools don’t need, is necessary.

“Labour will fiercely oppose these plans. At a time when schools are facing huge challenges of falling budgets for the first time since the mid-1990s, chronic shortages of teachers and not enough good school places, this unnecessary and unfounded distraction of the Government’s will only harm standards in our schools.”

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