Local Authorities (LAs) have a statutory duty to manage a potential surplus of schools places but managing this possible over-supply is a source of great anxiety, says a report
commissioned by the Department for Education (DfE) and the Local Government Association (LGA).
The ability of LAs to manage the number of school places locally is hampered by Government policy which encourages academy conversion and establishing free schools. This is because:
1 Academies can increase their size without consulting with LAs
2 Free schools can open without reference to LAs.
The report described two scenarios:
1 Where a Local Authority must manage the closure of a “poor” school when it becomes unviable because a better-performing school has expanded.
2 Where a Local Authority needs to respond to a situation where a well-performing school is put at risk because other schools have expanded.
Scenario One raised these questions:
1 How can LAs manage the smooth and speedy transition of pupils remaining in the “poor” school to places in other schools?
2 How can LAs work effectively with other schools, including academies, to find sufficient places for the displaced pupils?
3 What authority (LA or DfE) is responsible if the school threatened with closure is an academy or free school?
Scenario Two raised this question:
How can LAs deal with the possible closure of a school when this is not in the best interests of pupils or parents? This may happen where:
1 Pupil numbers in the area are static or declining.
2 Most parents send their children to local schools.
3 All local schools are good or better.
4 Where a rise in the number of selective places or in schools with a similar academic emphasis would narrow choice.
Both scenarios raised a further question: how would LAs respond to the possible closure of a school when school numbers are expected to rise in a few years time and the places available in the school threatened with closure would be needed?
The report noted that in the autonomous system envisaged by the Government it would be schools not the LA which would decide “the future pattern of provision”. It also found that academies themselves recognised that a self-regulating system is unlikely to work in these scenarios. And academies reported that in these circumstances collaboration would decline as schools became more competitive.
So, in a future autonomous, supposedly “self-regulating” system, the type of provision in an area will not be centrally planned or managed but will be the result of decisions made by individual schools. When local authorities make judgments they are supposed to act in the best interests of all local children. In an autonomous situation, the question is whether individual schools will consider any pupils that are not theirs and take action which could put a neighbouring school at risk or reduce choice locally. This has already happened in Beccles where a new free school threatens to rejoice choice
for all local pupils – two schools can’t offer the same range of subjects and one large one.
And what, if anything, will local authorities be able to do about it?