‘Give local authorities power to intervene in academy school cases’

Thomas Bennett Community College. Pic Steve Robards SR1808026 SUS-180327-121133001
Thomas Bennett Community College. Pic Steve Robards SR1808026 SUS-180327-121133001

The leader of West Sussex County Council has been asked to call for a change in the law governing local authority powers to intervene in the running of academies.

A notice of motion from Paul High (Con, Worthing West) will be tabled at a County Hall meeting on Friday (July 20) asking Louise Goldsmith and Richard Burrett, cabinet member for education and skills, to write to education secretary Damian Hinds.

The call came after the council was left powerless to intervene during problems at Thomas Bennett Community College, in Crawley, which is run by The Kemnal Academies Trust (TKAT).

Twelve teachers and a number of support staff resigned and strike action was called after TKAT announced a ‘restructure’, which unions said would cut almost £1m from the academy budget and lead to job losses.

However industrial action was suspended and an agreement reached between teachers’ unions and the academy trust last month.

During a meeting of the Children and Young People’s Services Select Committee, in June, Mr Burrett said he was ‘quite weary’ of people asking the council to step in, when it had no power to do so.

In his notice, Mr High said: “This council is concerned that, whilst schools which have been judged to be inadequate by Ofsted can be the subject of a Directed Academy Order imposed by the Regional Schools Commissioner, there is no legal mechanism via which an academy which is experiencing difficulties can be returned to local authority control, even if it is clear that is the outcome which parents want.

“This leaves the county council powerless to act directly in response to parents’ concerns.”

As well as asking for greater powers to intervene, challenge and support any academies causing concern, Mr High called for mechanisms to be put in place which would allow an academy to be returned to local authority control, if that was deemed to be in the best interest of the school.

At the start of June Labour county councillor Michael Jones submitted a motion calling for the council to purse options to renegotiate or extend the terms of the PFI contract and seek an agreement with TKAT that they will put plans for a restructure or staffing costs on hold until negotiations are concluded.

He also asked if the council would work with the regional schools commissioner (RSC) to see if there is any scope for Thomas Bennett to be returned to local authority control.

This motion was referred to the cabinet member.

An officer response reads: “As the county council is not responsible for oversight of academies, it would not be possible to seek an agreement from the academy trust to put the plans for any proposed re-structure or staffing cuts on hold.

“However, since hearing about the challenges faced by TBCC and the potential impact on pupils in the school and the locality, the county council’s senior officers have been in regular conversation with the RSC to voice concerns and to secure an understanding of the current position.

“The most recent update from the RSC indicated that there were not expected to be any redundancies at the college and neither the sixth form nor the special support centre would be closed.”

The report added: “There is no legal mechanism for an academy to return to local authority control. However the local authority is able to challenge the RSC to improve the academy where West Sussex children go to the school and standards are not good enough.

“The inability of the local authority to have any meaningful intervention when academies are in difficulties was highlighted at a recent meeting of the Children and Young People’s Services Select Committee. The committee endorsed the recommendation that the cabinet member for education and skills write to the secretary of state to request that Government review the powers of local authorities to intervene in academies where they are in difficulties in order to enable them to fulfil their statutory duties and champion their children and young people to ensure they get the best start in life.

“The cabinet member has accepted this recommendation and will be writing to the secretary of state to raise these issues.

“The cabinet member has considered the notice of motion. Taking into account both the fact that the county council does not have oversight of academies and the developments that have occurred regarding this issue since the Motion was submitted, the cabinet member is unable to support the motion.”

The meeting will be held at County Hall, West Street, Chichester, on Friday at 10.30am.