My Lords, I refer your Lordships to my registered interests as chairman of the Chartered Institution for Further Education, the English Schools’ Orchestra, and several other charities and bodies connected to education.
I welcome greatly the emphasis in the Queen’s Speech on school education and particularly want to mention two potential measures: first, the promise to allocate funding fairly and consistently to all schools; and secondly, the determination to remove the current barriers for some schools to become academies.
First, many of us have had the experience of leaving the school gate, driving up the road for a mile or two, crossing a county border and coming to an almost exactly similar school serving a similar population of young people and discovering that, for almost forgotten historical reasons, the funding of the second school differs from the first by possibly hundreds of thousands of pounds—with all the knock-on effects that this has on the standards of education on offer. That is why a direct funding formula is required and I am very pleased to see that the further development of it is a priority.
This is to continue work begun in the early 1990s by the former Funding Agency for Schools, of which I was vice-chairman. Per capita funding allocated using the same criteria for wherever a child lives in the country is vital and fair. Wholly transparent exceptional adjustments should be made only when it is clear that they are deserved and necessary. Of course, a move to a nationwide formula for resources has to be carried out over a considerable period and with great sensitivity, as there will clearly be winners and losers as a funding increase in one area might lead to a decrease in real terms in others.
On my second concern, I have had meetings with governing bodies of some first-class and well-established schools that would like, in principle, to become academies. They tend to be church schools, voluntary aided or controlled, and selective schools, many of them with long histories that pre-date the introduction of state education. Some date from the 18th and early 19th centuries. They usually have a distinctive ethos; for some, this is a particular faith. The schools are usually owned by boards of trustees and not by the state or local authorities and will have a trust deed. The foundation governors are legally appointed for the purpose of ensuring that the school is preserved and developed in accordance with the trust deed. Their governors, while often attracted in principle to academy status, have expressed to me two major anxieties that often prevent them taking their interest further.
First, the present regulations for converter academies are too restrictive and often require the appointment of governors by outside bodies, unwelcome to a particular school, or the alteration of governance traditions that are centuries old. There should be much more accommodation in the current arrangements to take this into account. The Government should look back at the conversion regulations for grant-maintained schools—these were the precursors of academies. They were allowed to convert largely “as is”, or rather “as was”, as far as their governance arrangements were concerned. So, the current, often inflexible rules should be changed if more voluntary schools are to become academies.
Secondly, these schools have often been used to a special kind of independence within the system and would not wish to be thrust by law, as the recent White Paper seems to imply, into a multi-academy trust with other schools, although they often welcome loose federations with others in their localities. Some governing bodies greatly fear the loss of their autonomy to the bosses of multi-academy trusts and, in my view, with some good reason. Often, these voluntary schools are among the country’s best performing schools and there should be as few impediments as possible to them becoming stand-alone academies. They certainly should not be required to change historical governance traditions in order to accommodate a one-size-fits-all approach.
I look forward to the Second Reading of the new Schools Bill next week and the opportunity of further debate on these important subjects.