For all Gove’s talk of parental choice, fewer pupils got their chosen secondary this year

There is increasing pressure on school places and Michael Gove’s policies are making things worse.

There is increasing pressure on school places and Michael Gove’s policies are making things worse

For the first time in five years the percentage of children not getting into their first choice secondary school has risen.

Last year 86.7 per cent of 11-year-olds were offered a place at their preferred secondary compared with 85.2 per cent this year. The proportion of pupils who didn’t get any of their first three preferences also increased, from 3.5 per cent of applicants to 4.5 per cent.

This is a significant failure by a government that claims to put parental choice at the heart of its educational reforms.

It is not, however, particularly surprising. At a time of increasing pressure on primary and now secondary school places, the government has wasted millions on academies and free schools, money that could have been spent on creating new school places where they are needed.

Further, the government has made it almost impossible for local authorities to set up new council-maintained schools, preventing even the best local education authorities from creating new community schools in response to increased demand.

Recently, the debate about school places has centred largely on free schools. While it’s certainly true that money has been spent on creating free schools where there was already surplus capacity, and that many free schools are undersubscribed, the prominence of the free school debate has somewhat eclipsed the role that the academy programme has played in exacerbating the pressure on places.

In a rush to get as many schools as possible to convert to academy status, the Department for Education overspent on the academies programme by £1 billion in the first two years of this government. As detailed in the National Audit Office report, most of this overspend didn’t even go to the thousands of schools that converted but was absorbed by the spiralling costs associated with conversion such as legal and administrative costs, accountants’ fees and insurance.

Worse, there was no evidence then that this roll-out of academies would raise standards relative to local authority maintained schools and there is no evidence now that it has done so.

When you strip out the discredited use of GCSE-equivalents such as NVQ’s, local authority maintained schools have done as well as academies at secondary level. At primary level, the data shows that last year sponsored academies performed significantly worse than their local authority comparators.

In other words, Gove spent a billion pounds not on new or better school places but on changing the legal structure of schools so that they no longer fall within the aegis of local education authorities. The majority of secondary schools are now academies, answerable only to the secretary of state.

The waste of money in relation to academies did not end in 2012. One of the most expensive aspects of the ongoing academy programme is forced academisation: making schools become academies against the wishes of parents, staff and the local community.

As well as being expensive in terms of DfE administrative costs, these cases frequently end up in costly court battles – battles which alienate staff and parents, divert energy away from teaching and learning and which don’t even improve the school if the academy order is finally forced through.

Gove’s obsession with academies and his pathological aversion to schools maintained by local authorities has also ensured that it is now almost impossible for local authorities to build new community schools, even though the legal duty to provide enough school places still rests with councils.

The Education Act 2011 states that “If a local authority in England thinks a new school needs to be established in their area, they must seek proposals for the establishment of an Academy.” Only if they receive no such proposals or if the secretary of state deems all proposals unsuitable can a council then publish its own proposals to establish a community school.

The consequences of this are two-fold: local authorities cannot respond quickly to demand for additional places and, critically, the many local authorities whose maintained schools perform well are being stopped from creating more such schools. Even if an approved academy group has a worse track record than the council, or no track record at all, the school will still be run as an academy.

Local authorities’ ability to ensure that there are enough secondary school places is also hampered by the fact that a majority of secondaries are now completely outside of their control. This means that even if an academy is oversubscribed but has capacity to expand, the council has no power to require that academy to do so.

In a recent report for the Local Government Association, councillor David Simmonds, Conservative chairman of the LGA’s Children and Young People Board, called for “the restoration of decision-making on the provision of new schools to local level, as it was prior to the Academies Act 2011”.

This, he said, should include “the flexibility to deliver whatever new type of school is required to fulfil [councils’] statutory duty to offer places… This should include the option of establishing community schools if that is the locally preferred option”.

Simmonds also calls for councils “to be given a greater role in judging and approving free school proposals to ensure that new free schools are established where they are needed and in a way that supports councils in their place planning duties”.

It’s alarming that such obvious arguments have to be made. It is even more alarming that Gove is studiously ignoring them.

Annie Powell is a contributing editor to Left Foot Forward. Follow her on Twitter

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