Last month the government published a ‘white paper’ called Education Excellence Everywhere.
For many the headline from this white paper was the announcement that all schools will be forced to become academies by 2020.
Now I know most people probably do not have the time to read white papers (government reports giving information or proposals on an issue), but as a politician I like to take an interest in them - and in this particular paper a very keen interest indeed.
Both the County Council and myself wholeheartedly support the government’s drive to improve education standards.
Recently there have been details published showing where as a country we have been falling behind international league tables. This is worrying for our future economy and has to be addressed.
Here in West Sussex we are working to address this and it is very much part of our stated ambition to give children the best start in life.
We also believe that choice in education – whether that is a free school, academy, local authority or private – is right for the child and parent. One size does not fit all and at its heart education has to be centred around the child.
But let’s be clear, education does not begin and end at the school gates. As parents we also play a part from the moment they are born.
This is why I have misgivings about the contents of the white paper and I have written to Education Secretary Nicky Morgan expressing these misgivings. You might think that odd coming from a Conservative councillor about a Conservative government, but I think in an open democracy it is right to exercise free speech and speak out on an issue of such importance which will affect so many.
As I said for many the headline was about academies. I am not against academies and would support a school and its community to promote its conversion where it can be shown that it would bring about a positive benefit to the children. We have many good academies in West Sussex and I welcome this choice for parents and children.
However, one of the main points in the white paper which I take issue with is the right to choose being taken away from so many. Parents, children, headteachers and governing bodies should be able to choose if they want to attend or become an academy. As I said before one size does not fit all.
The proposals in the white paper remove most of the local authority powers and responsibilities relating to education. The proposals put forward in the white paper mean that the County Council will be left with responsibilities such as school place planning and protecting vulnerable pupils. This includes children and young people with Special Education Needs and Disabilities (SEND).
Responsibilities but – in many cases - not the powers to fulfil our duties.
For example, while we will still have legal responsibility to make sure all children have a school place we will not have any powers to force academies or free schools to expand should they choose not to. This will make it incredibly difficult for us to carry out our school places planning role.
I also fear vulnerable children may find it more difficult to receive the support they need and get the best education they need without the current intervention powers.
When a school turns into an academy all ties with the local authority cease. So in the new world where does that leave the parent who is worried that a child is being bullied? Or a parent who has a concern about school performance?
Of course that parent can go direct to the school where the issue can be sorted out – but what happens if the issue is not resolved?
Firstly, parents will have to option to go to the Regional Schools Commissioner. If the issue is unresolved then there will be an Ombudsman to appeal to for help.
The County Council will have the role of advocacy – but the details are still vague.
So my concern is for the parent and child who could be shifted all over the place for a problem to be resolved.
I don’t understand why councillors are excluded in this as I have seen how they can be excellent champions in such cases.
For local schools we need local accountability and that is what is so badly missing in this government approach.
The white paper is about a fundamental change in the education system.
Don’t get me wrong – we need some changes and we do need to improve our youngster’s educational attainment. However, we need to ensure local accountability and the voice of the child and parent is an absolute priority. These are the points we will be raising and I hope parents and grandparents will support us in this.
I would be keen to hear your views.