Wednesday. 30 July 2014

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Council clashes with Michael Gove over plans for new schools

Coventry refuses to build primaries after government rules that they must be academies

The government’s strategy is simply to bully, cajole and force schools down the path of academies and free schools

Christine Blower, general secretary, National Union of Teachers

Plans to build two state schools using land and cash from property developers have been scrapped following a clash with education secretary Michael Gove.

Coventry city council secured the funding – and land worth around £3 million – for the new primary schools from developers building more than 1,400 homes on two former industrial sites.

But the council is abandoning plans for the schools after discovering that Gove will insist that they must be academies or free schools.

Councillors in Coventry branded Gove’s policy “draconian” at a time of a national shortage of places in primary schools.

The clash is bound to be repeated in other areas of England.

The row in Coventry has blown up after four developers building homes on the former Massey Ferguson and Marconi sites agreed to pay a total of £420,000 to the council to help build two primary schools, each for around 350 pupils. The developers agreed to contribute the cash and land at each site under a section of planning law aimed at reducing a development’s impact on a community.

The Labour-controlled council was shocked to discover that new schools must be academies or free schools. It is refusing to build them because it will have no say in how they are run.

Kevin Maton, chairman of the council’s planning committee, said: “I had to ask the question twice. I could not quite believe how draconian it seemed that things were going to be.”

A little-noticed clause in the Education Act 2011 states: “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.” Under government guidelines, free schools can also be established.

Local authorities do not run academies or free schools. However, councils remain legally responsible for providing enough places in primary school for children.

Maton said: “Planning education provision will be either non-existent or much more difficult. If you move to having a whole range of independent businesses that happen to be schools, controlled by the secretary of state for education, he cannot know from day to day what is going on.

“How can you possibly plan so that you are meeting all the needs of the local community?”

David Kershaw, cabinet member for education at Coventry city council, said: “We have no proposals to build new schools in Coventry because they would not be part of the local authority.”

He continued: “In an ideal world, we would like to have new schools to meet the needs of the high numbers of children that we have in the city. But we do not have that option.”

The council is consulting on whether to spend the developers’ money on expanding 20 existing primary schools.

The rules have also raised concerns at Bristol city council, which is controlled by Liberal Democrats. Nonetheless, it approved plans last month for four new primary schools.

Clare Campion-Smith, Liberal Democrat councillor responsible for children at the council, said: “We want to provide local places for local children. But an academy might change its admissions arrangements, and we cannot do anything about it.

“Or, we may wish to expand a school, and the academy may turn round and say, ‘We do not want to expand.’ It is a serious concern.”

The Department for Education predicts that the number of pupils at primary school will rise by 18 per cent by 2020. A spokeswoman said: “We are creating thousands more places to deal with the impact of rising birth-rates on primary schools.

“Since 2011, we have made £2.7 billion available for local authorities to support them in providing additional pupil places. Through the expansion of the academies programme and the introduction of free schools, we are increasing the number of good school places, and offering parents genuine choice.”

Christine Blower, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said: “The government’s strategy is simply to bully, cajole and force schools down the path of academies and free schools.

“There is a huge demographic need for more primary schools, and local authorities should be free to make their own informed decisions about what is best for the community.”

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