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Opinion: School concrete crisis has highlighted lack of transparency in our academies

One of the consequences of the schools’ concrete crisis is that it highlights an issue about the lack of transparency in the education system, particularly around academies.

In its desire to unleash various freedoms for those schools that have converted to academies, the government did away with any local oversight - essentially, councils were stripped of their role as part of the checks and balances over all schools.

Sunny Bank Primary School in Sittingbourne was another school affected
Sunny Bank Primary School in Sittingbourne was another school affected

Instead, academies were and are answerable to the Department for Education - who, it should be said, may not be keen on trashing academy schools given that they are the cornerstone of the government’s education programme.

This severing of the link between local councils and schools went down like a lead balloon, especially among Conservative-run authorities who felt it was an unnecessary power grab designed to lure schools away under the guise of greater freedoms.

Ever since, and whenever a chance presents itself, councillors have criticised these new freedoms offered to academies, making the entirely valid point that without some form of oversight, it is not always possible to know what academies are doing; and notably what they are doing in relation to pupils’ performance.

Given that there are now more academy schools in Kent - 291 as opposed to 282 in non-academy schools - this is not a case of councillors raising an inconsequential matter.

Reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete
Reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete

The crisis over dangerous concrete has served to underline that when it comes to accountability and transparency, there is a democratic deficit that needs tackling.

It is worth pointing out that this is not a ‘new ‘ issue. A report by the Local Government Association made exactly the same point in a study that called for powers to intervene in troubled schools to be returned to local authorities. If checks and balances were not restored, the LGA warned, public confidence in the education system may be at risk.

And when was this report published? 2014.

In response to Paul’s column, Leora Cruddas CBE, said:

“The problems with some of our school buildings that have emerged are very serious, but contrary to what Paul’s claims they have nothing to do with whether or not they are academies.

“Whether a school is council-run or part of a school trust, the funding for major repairs is set by central government and all types of schools are now dealing with the building design decisions made in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s - long before any academy existed. Trust leaders are working hard to ensure schools open for the new term and provide a great education to their pupils, as they also did throughout the pandemic.

“School trusts are highly accountable, with strict rules on how they are run, with exam results, financial accounts, and other information published by law every year - often in much more detail and with much more scrutiny than ever applied to local authority schools.

“The reality is that while some councils did support their schools well in the past, too often local authorities were focused on their many other responsibilities. When things did go wrong for pupils and their families there was too little support, and no way of triggering improvements.

“School trusts can focus on doing just one thing really well - running schools - which is why a study last year found that more than seven out of ten sponsored academies which Ofsted said were under performing under their local council went on to receive a good or outstanding rating after joining a trust. Hundreds of well-performing schools have also taken the positive, voluntary step of joining a school trust because they can see the benefits it brings for their pupils and staff.”

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