Manchester – subverting or succumbing to the government’s policy on academies and ‘free’ schools?

Don Berry (Manchester SEA and former headteacher) writes:

Manchester is booming – and not just its football teams. Its population has bounced back from a low of 450,000 to 500,000 and is predicted to hit 600,000 by 2030. The immediate challenge for the City Council is to find 7,000 extra primary school places in the next four years. It has already expanded its existing provision in primary schools by the equivalent of 35 forms of entry at reception level in the last couple of years by reopening previously mothballed classrooms and providing temporary portable classrooms (‘prefabs’) but many schools are now full beyond capacity, often in ageing buildings.

Consequently the City Council has accepted a report from officers to use ‘any means necessary’ to solve the problem which includes ‘putting in place a proactive approach to encouraging free school applications to support the requirement for additional places in key areas of the city where the need is clearly proven.’ Already it has given well publicised backing to the New Islington Free School backed by developer Urban Splash and the (independent) Manchester Grammar School. It has also supported the Big Life Group’s ( the company behind The Big Issue) bid to open a free school in Longsight where it already runs an ex Sure Start Children’s Centre. The bid for a Chinese themed Dragonheart Primary School led by the Chinese Centre in Ardwick has also been assisted by Council officers.

So far there has been no political reaction to this policy, in a City Council where already 86 out of 96 seats are held by Labour (and where there is every likelihood that all seats will be Labour after the 2014 local elections). Equally Stephen Twigg, when I asked him about Labour’s attitude to ‘free’ schools at the SEA’s Caroline Benn Memorial Lecture in the House of Commons in November 2012, said he understood the need for councils like Manchester to act ‘tactically’ in this respect in the present circumstances. Interestingly, while the media coverage of the National Audit Office’s report of a shortfall of 256,000 new school places by next year fails to mention that local authorities are now barred by Secretary of State Gove  from opening new schools themselves, Fiona Miller writing in the Education Guardian on 12.3.13 states “Meanwhile the DfE has quietly announced that many new free schools will be delivered via local authorities.”

The Leader of Manchester City Council, Sir Richard Leese, expressed the view that the Council was acting responsibly in pursuing this approach when I interviewed him, just as they were when they embraced the previous government’s academies programme by supporting the creation of six ‘Manchester Model Academies’ in partnerships with key business sponsors and Manchester (FE) College. Working with schools, Manchester has established a Strategic Education Partnership (SEP) and Manchester Schools Alliance (MSA) and ‘education organisations joining these arrangements will be asked to sign up to a common set of values and ambitions that will underpin partnership working. The partnership arrangements are designed to mitigate the potential negative impact of national policy change’ and ensure ‘that all schools, regardless of governance, belong to the Manchester family of schools’ (my emphases).

The Council expects that academies and ‘free’ school providers will work in collaboration with them through the SEP and MSA and has drawn up a set of ‘Academy and Free School Sponsor Selection Criteria’. These include a commitment to inclusive education; fair access for all pupils as governed by the Admissions Code of Practice; “appropriate staffing arrangements” and “good employment practices”; a Local Authority governor and engagement with collaborative partnerships with other schools and agencies. In respect of supporting the opening of ‘free’ schools Councillor Leese was clear that “establishing the proposed provision is supported by need and that there is a genuine commitment to providing school places for local children”.

So far this approach has been borne out by the bids that are progressing which are all in areas of the city with acute demand (and where the City Council has provided the necessary supporting population data much to the surprise of Gove’s New Schools Network who, possibly learning from previous debacles, seem now to be requiring evidence of local need for extra places).  Equally “to date all academies in Manchester have appointed an LA governor”. And in respect of ‘forced’ sponsored academies the Council believes that “the Strategic Education Partnership through the Schools’ Alliance will have an important role in influencing the choice of sponsor” through their sponsor selection criteria and interestingly claims that “this approach has been discussed with the DfE and ‘in principle’ agreement established. The Manchester framework will include sponsors who can support schools in special measures, have the capacity to support a school in these circumstances and are likely to be approved by the DfE. It is important to note that where the Local Authority can evidence that a strong local solution can be put in place, the DfE is unlikely to impose an external academy solution.” (my emphasis). So far there have been very few ‘forced’ academies in Manchester although a cynic might suggest that reflects the difficulty of finding externally imposed sponsors.

Consequently what is the SEA to make of a policy that that some would call ingenious, others collaborationist, many simply pragmatic? Clearly there are dangers:

For teachers.

Steve Marciniak NUT local secretary has already seen some erosion of teachers conditions of service in Manchester’s existing academies. Councillor Leese refused to equate ‘appropriate staffing arrangements’ and ‘good employment practices’ in Manchester’s Sponsor Selection Criteria with endorsement of national pay and conditions.

For pupils and parents.

Apart from the initial ‘buzz’ around lavishly funded new academies in new buildings and in some case murmurings about overuse of exclusions and lack of inclusivness there seems to have been very little fuss about the introduction of academies (and now the advent of ‘free’ schools.) Their performance is as patchy as academies nationally with some at serious risk of falling foul of new thresholds. So far there seems little dissatisfaction with lack of accountability through the Local Authority. Councillors argue that parents and pupils are more concerned about the quality of schools ( and availability of places in them) than who runs them. 

For socialists the issue might come down to the old one of whether it’s best for the state to own, control or commission services (from any willing provider?) The role of local government and the potential for ‘municipal socialism’ has shrunk considerably since its glory days (eg transport departments, council housing, further education) and Manchester City Council has virtually withdrawn from educational provision completely (with less than 12 staff in its education department compared to over 500 some years ago and it’s school improvement role effectively privatised into the arms length One Education business.)

References are to the report ‘Education Services Transformation 2’ to the Young People and Children’s Services Committee of Manchester City Council on 11th December 2012.

It can be found as Report 5 at http://www.manchester.gov.uk/meetings/meeting/1815/young_people_and_children_scrutiny_committee

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