The Government's answer to the rising demand for school places has been some funding for existing schools, expansion of grammar schools and the promise to allow up to 500 free schools.
Nice idea, but taken to extreme, it puts more schools further from the influence of councils and subject only to market forces. That makes it better for some children and harder for councils to ensure that every child has a good school place. It also increases transport costs, which only some parents will be able to afford, though the government has said they will fund the new requirements for school transport in the first instance. In rural Lincolnshire, we spend £4.3m taking a limited number of children to grammar school, so it is an important issue.
Councils should be able to commission the building of new schools in the right places and be funded appropriately to carry out their statutory duty. Councils currently have little say in the decision as to where the new schools are created, nor what type they should be. With 91 per cent of maintained schools now rated as either outstanding or good by Ofsted, now is the time for Government to recognise councils as its education improvement partners. The LGA remains concerned about the lack of accountability, financial oversight and governance of the multi-academy Trusts. With councillors excluded from the process, parents can only write to the "Regional Schools Commissioner" or DoE. If the Trusts were set up locally, then parents could call on the council to assist when needed. Schools should have the choice, in partnership with parents and councils.
Councils have vast experience in running large budgets and are the most trusted part of the public sector, well placed to be at the heart of ensuring every child has a good school place, near to their homes.
The £216m announced for existing schools is short of the £6.7bn needed across England according to the National Audit Office. LGA research shows that councils have already diverted over £1 billion of their own budgets to create more places. Education is devolved in Wales and the government gave an overall sum to the Welsh government to distribute. A single capital pot would be welcome in England so that councils and schools can work together on the local challenges.
The LGA People and Places and City Regions Boards are working to make sure councils have a seat at the table to help design how skills and careers advice can be better combined and locally appropriate. State schools currently outperform academies, demonstrating the effectiveness of our councils in education. We are also calling for high performing schools to be allowed to assist less successful schools working with the council and without having to form an academy.
2018/19 changes to the distribution of funds between schools at fairly short notice could be disastrous for some schools and the LGA is calling for better notice.
As you will know, the education services grant to councils has been cut to a quarter, £600m. Now the Government is suggesting that in future, maintained schools should choose to fund the council's statutory duties, such as school improvement. That seems optimistic. The LGA sees the role of councils should remain central. In councils distributing the funding, there is currently a degree of flexibility, in conjunction with the Schools' Forums. Without that, councils must reduce funding for school top-ups, school resources, special schools and alternative provision. This puts pressure on the most vulnerable pupils and local authorities are concerned that High Needs allocations have not kept pace with the pressures of a rising population, increases in the complexity of need and rising costs.
With 91 per cent of maintained schools performing well and outperforming academies, it is clear that the local democratic accountability of education remains vital to parents and children. On the ground examples from your local authority or schools are very effective in negotiations. If you have some local case studies that help illustrate the cause, we would be most grateful to receive them.