Essex education chief’s concerns over forcing schools to become academies

County Hall, Chelmsford.

County Hall, Chelmsford. - Credit: Lucy taylor

An Essex education chief has warned the government to “think carefully” about plans to force all schools to become academies – as figures revealed County Hall could lose more than £1billion in land assets if the proposals go ahead.

Ray Gooding, Essex County Council cabinet member for education

Ray Gooding, Essex County Council cabinet member for education - Credit: Archant

Ray Gooding, Essex county councillor for education, has written to the government’s education minister Nicky Morgan outlining the authority’s position.

While the council remains supportive of the academy concept, it believes schools should have a say in whether they are converted and favours the current mix of schools.

In his letter Mr Gooding raises concerns about various aspects of the Educational Excellence Everywhere white paper.

These include the loss of freedom of choice for schools, communities and parents, as well as a lack of public accountability and democracy, and doubts about how standards will be scrutinised.

He said: “A lot of the proposals outlined in the white paper make good sense, but it is crucial the Government listens to feedback from schools and local authorities before railroading through with this.

“We would much rather schools and communities could choose for themselves whether they go down the academy route, and I urge the Government to think again.”

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In Essex 85% of maintained schools are currently rated as good or outstanding by Ofsted, compared with 84% of academies.

Mr Gooding added: “Academies can be a good option in driving up standards in schools, but they are not a magic solution and the assumption that academies will automatically perform better is certainly questionable.

“While we do not run schools, we do play a vital role in proactively working with them to drive improvement. I am not convinced unelected regional school commissioners have the capacity or local knowledge to do this.”

A Freedom of Information request made by the East Anglian Daily Times to Essex County Council revealed the authority holds a total of 802.952 hectares for state schools or their future use, which has an estimated value of £1.062bn.

In north Essex alone the land is worth £355.5million.

However, in 2011/12 the overall value was higher at £1.394bn – largely because once a school converts to an academy the length and nature of the standard 125-year academy lease means the asset value to County Hall is reduced to £0, even though the site area remains part of the council’s estate.

Commenting on the figures Mr Gooding said: “We need assurances we will not be financially disadvantaged by the academisation process, not only as a result of the impact of a loss of assets but in terms of the funding needed to support the conversion process.

“Regardless of the proposals, we will remain committed to supporting schools to ensure all pupils in Essex receive the best possible education.”

In Essex just 44% of the county’s 549 schools are academies, and Mr Gooding queried how conversion would be funded.

The education boss did not rule out Essex County Council setting up its own multi-academy trust to run schools if conversion is forced, and insisted parents would have a “vital” role.

He added: “Whatever the Government’s decision, we will remain committed to our role in holding people to account to help ensure all pupils in Essex receive the best possible education.”

A Department for Education spokesman referred to guidelines which suggest local authorities should lease land to converting schools at a peppercorn rent, and that the Secretary of State can force the issue if agreement cannot be reached.

He added that under the plans in the white paper the Secretary of State will take over the freehold of local authority land when community schools become academies in future.