On 9 September 2016 the Prime Minister, Theresa May, explained her vision for “a truly meritocratic Britain” and set out reforms aimed to ensure that there was a good school place for every child.
The Government has now issued a consultation document “schools that work for everyone” with the consultation closing on 12 December 2016, link to the consultation.
The consultation covers proposals in four key areas:
- Independent schools directly assisting the state-funded sector, through creating more good places and giving more choice and control for parents.
- Universities playing a direct role in improving school quality and pupil attainment.
- Selective schools providing more school places, and ensuring that they are open to children from all backgrounds.
- Faith Schools delivering more good school places, while meeting strengthened safeguards on inclusivity.
In the introduction to the consultation the Government states that there are 1.25 million children attending primary and secondary schools in England which are rated as either requiring improvement or inadequate, whilst at the same time the demographic pressures for good school places are increasing. Primary pupil numbers grew by over 11% between 2010 and 2016 and these numbers are projected to increase by a further 4% between 2016 and 2020. Secondary pupil numbers are projected to increase by around 10% between 2016 and 2020.
The Government states that to tackle this problem it needs to do three things:
- To radically expand the number of good school places available to all families.
- To give all schools with a strong track record, experience and expertise the right incentives to expand their offer to more pupils.
- To deliver a diverse school system that gives all children, whatever their background, the opportunity to help them achieve their potential.
The consultation sets out a series of proposed reforms to encourage independent schools, higher education institutions, selective and faith schools to help improve the quality of school places in the mainstream state sector.
As education policy is devolved it should be noted that these proposals apply only to England.
The consultation document states that there are approximately 2,300 independent schools in England of varying sizes (with a median size of 154 pupils) of which around 1,300 are registered as charities. These must demonstrate that they meet the Charity Commission “public benefit” rules by benefitting a reasonably wide section of the public - this they tend to do by use of funds to give bursaries and fee discounts.
Many independent schools already have partnership arrangements with state schools and a small number either co-sponsor an academy or have set up a free school but the Government is proposing to expand this by requiring that independent schools with the capacity and capability should, in recognition of the benefits of their charitable status, either
- Sponsor academies or set up a new free school in the state sector - the capital and revenue costs of this being met by the Government but the independent school would have the responsibility for ensuring its success and therefore the academy or free school would need to be rated as good or outstanding within a specified number of years; or
- Offer a certain proportion of places as fully funded bursaries to those who are unable to pay fees. The Government states this figure should be considerably higher than that which is currently offered at most independent schools.
For those smaller independent schools (not yet defined) that do not have the capacity and capability to take on full sponsorship the Government will instead ask such schools to
- Provide direct school to school support with state schools - such as providing staff to assist state schools with teacher development; and/or
- Support teaching in minority subjects which state schools struggle to make viable, such as further maths, coding, languages such as Mandarin and Russian, and classics; and/or
- Ensure their senior leaders become directors of multi-academy trusts; and/or
- Provide greater expertise and access to facilities - such as to science labs, music, drama and sporting facilities; and/or
- Provide sixth-form scholarships to a proportion of pupils in each year 11 at a local school.
Amongst the questions in the consultation is what threshold should be applied to decide which schools have the capacity to sponsor or set up a new school or offer funded places and whether the Government should consider legislation allowing the Charity Commission to revise its guidance and to remove the benefits associated with the charitable status from independent schools which do not comply with the requirements.
The Government recognises that universities have been criticised for charging higher tuition fees but failing to widen access to children of more modest incomes and backgrounds but believes this is unfair on the grounds that universities currently have little involvement or direct control over school level attainment.
Therefore the Government proposes that as a condition of charging higher fees, higher education institutions must either establish a new school in the state system (of which the capital and revenue costs will be met by the Government) or sponsor an academy in the state system. In both cases the school would be required to be good or outstanding within a fixed number of years.
The Government would like to see universities begin to sponsor schools as soon as possible and intends to set out new guidance to the Director for Fair Access with clear expectations that universities would contribute to school-level attainment as a condition of charging higher fees. The Government envisages this guidance being issued in early 2017 in time for inclusion in the DfA’s own guidance to universities for access agreements that comes into force for academic year 2018/19.
The Government says it will also consider what further measures, including potential legislation, are necessary to require sponsorship of a school as the specific means by which universities contribute to raising attainment and widening participation.
Amongst the questions in the consultation document is what is the best way to ensure that all universities sponsor schools as a condition of higher fees and whether the Government should encourage universities to take specific factors into account when deciding how and where to support school attainment.
The Government states that it believes that there is a case for relaxing current restrictions on selective education in order to provide more good school places within the system. The Government therefore states that it will allow good and outstanding selective schools to expand, will enable new wholly selective or partially selective schools to be established and allow existing non-selective schools to become selective. In all three cases this is subject to meeting certain conditions to ensure that the number of good and outstanding places in non-selective schools will also increase.
The Government states that whilst the conditions may vary from school to school it proposes a number of conditions to ensure that new or expanding selective schools contribute in a meaningful way to improving outcomes for all pupils. Options mentioned by the Government are as follows:
- Taking a proportion of pupils from lower income households to ensure that selective education is not reserved for those with the means to move into the catchment area or pay for tuition fees to pass the test;
- Establishing a new non-selective secondary school - with the capital and revenue costs paid by the Government;
- Establishing a primary feeder in an area with a high density of lower income households to widen access, again with the capital and revenue costs paid by the Government;
- Partnering with an existing non-selective school within a multi-academy trust or sponsoring a currently underperforming non-selective academy;
- Ensuring that there are opportunities to join the selective school at different ages, such as 14 and 16 as well as 11.
The Government states that in all cases it would expect non-selective schools established or in partnership with selective schools to be rated good or outstanding within a specified number of years and that where schools are not meeting expectations or selective schools do not deliver good or outstanding non-selective education alongside new selective places they will consider a number of sanctions, such as removing access to any additional funding streams; removing the right to select by ability (either temporarily or permanently) and restricting access to future growth.
Whilst the proposals apply to new and expanding selective schools and existing non-selective schools becoming selective, the Government also believes there is a case for existing selective schools to do more to support children at non-selective schools and therefore proposes encouraging multi-academy trusts to select within their trust; requiring existing selective schools to engage in outreach activity and requiring that all selective schools have in place strategies to ensure fair access.
Faith schools currently make up a third of all schools in England and the Government is of the view that the 50% cap on the number of children admitted by faith for over-subscribed new free schools does not achieve inclusivity and in fact prevents some high performing faith schools from expanding or establishing new schools. The Government therefore proposes to remove the 50% rule and instead require new faith free schools to:
- Prove there is a demand for school places from parents of other faiths;
- Establish twinning arrangements with other schools not of their faith;
- Consider setting up mixed faith multi-academy trusts, including becoming a sponsor for underperforming non-faith schools; and
- Consider placing an independent member or director of a different faith or no faith at all on the governing body of new faith schools.
The Government has asked whether these are the right alternative requirements to replace the 50% rule and how else it might ensure that faith schools espouse and deliver a diverse multi-faith offering to parents within a faith school environment.
The Government says it would monitor compliance with provisions in the funding agreement by checking how well the schools meet the requirement relating to inclusivity and fundamental British values and how well they promote community cohesion. Schools that do not meet the requirements would lose the right to admit on the basis of faith and therefore become a non-faith school.
Perhaps not surprisingly the proposals in relation to selective schools have proved the most controversial of this raft of proposals from the Government, with opposition to these proposals being expressed. As mentioned, consultation runs until 12 December 2016 and therefore it is likely to be the new year before further information is forthcoming from the Government in relation to the whole set of proposals.