Ending education grants will impact on school standards, county leaders warn

CCN News 2016 | 01 November 2016

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County leaders have warned cutting an education grant is ‘academisation by the back door’, with at least two thirds of the country’s academies buying school improvement services from their local councils.

The Education Services Grant (ESG), used for school improvement services, as well as funding for human resources, welfare services, and special needs pupils, is to be removed completely for local authorities by August 2017.

However, research compiled by the County Councils Network (CCN) found that 68% of academies countrywide purchase school improvement services from their county council or county unitary. In some counties, every single academy purchases these services from the local authority.

When the previous Government announced its proposals to compel all schools to become academies by 2022, it announced that the ESG general fund for councils would be phased out in tandem with academisation. However, that policy was reversed in the spring, with CCN playing a prominent advocacy role in preventing forced academisation.

The new Government then announced this summer the ESG would be completely stopped next year – with no consultation. Despite the Government now dropping academies legislation altogether by no longer taking the Education for All Bill through Parliament, county leaders say schools are still vulnerable to backdoor academisation.

With very little budget for school improvement services, as well as special educational needs pupils, this could lead to drops in the high standards delivered by county authorities, leaving local schools vulnerable to academisation due to poor performance.

As schools will no longer be compelled to academies, leaders of England’s largest authorities have written to Education Secretary Justine Greening to request support for a review of this decision ahead of the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement – otherwise they fear standards will decline.

Since 2014/15, cutbacks amounting to £800million of ESG funding will have been made by next summer, when it is then withdrawn from councils. CCN is concerned this will leave high-performing education authorities struggling to provide school improvement services to help raise standards, particularly in the thousands of primary schools run by councils; or unable to support the majority of academies and academy chains that purchase these services from their local county councils.

The figures show that almost every county in England has had an academy purchasing school improvement services from its local authority – such as consultancy services, training courses and packages, curriculum materials, and conferences. Some of those may be delivered by long-term agreements, others may be on an ad-hoc basis.

Cllr Paul Carter, CCN chairman, said:

“Counties have a long and proud track record of delivering high quality education, as evidenced in that 89% of local authority-maintained schools are rated ‘Good’ or ‘Outstanding’. With the majority of academies across the whole country buying school improvement services from county authorities, it is clear they value local authorities’ expertise and knowledge as a key component for delivering a better education for all.

“Yet, the complete reduction of the ESG – based on a now discarded policy and Bill – will leave councils with a virtually non-existent budget in which to improve standards. The long term consequences of this are far more damaging than the short-term and modest savings for the Treasury’s budget.

“The Government re-thinking the Education for All Bill is a positive step, but the withdrawal of ESG will have a massively detrimental impact on local primary schools and leave councils unable to support academy schools. Was this really the intention behind the decision? You could argue this is forced academisation by the back door.

“We very much welcome the Government listening to the concerns of county authorities over academisation. We want to work together again in designing a reformed education system, where county authorities work well in a mixed economy of schools. It is imperative that we continue our upward trajectory in high-standards and give our children the best possible start in life.”