Confessions of a Political Animal

September 9, 2008

The Fallacy of School Choice

Schools under Local Authority control in London

Last week, the English education system arrived at an historic, yet rather under-reported juncture. The Southwark News reported that its borough had become the first local authority in the country which would have no schools, either primary or secondary, under its own control. As of Monday 1st September, when Geoffrey Chaucer Technology College became the Globe Academy, under the control of ARK Schools, each of Southwark’s schools is either an academy, foundation school or voluntary aided school, with at the very least the opportunity to set its own admission code.

Of course, this arises from the government’s mantra of diversifying the provision of education, with a particular focus on the secondary sector. Or in other words – the mantra of ‘choice’ which has been rolled out across the public sector. The problem is: in many areas, choice is becoming increasingly restricted as to the type of school that your child attends, particularly if you want their education to be subject to local democratic accountability.

A couple of notes about the map above: it shows the proportion of state-sector school places in 2008-09 which are in local authority controlled secondary schools (i.e. community schools and voluntary controlled schools) in each London borough. Because the transfer of Southwark’s final secondary school to academy control occurred only at the start of term, it is not yet shown as a 0% borough. It should also be noted that the figures are based on estimated intakes for some academies and one voluntary controlled school. This is largely because they are new institutions which opened only in September 2007 and thus have only two year groups currently in place – in these cases the local authority controlled proportion will continue to shrink in future years.

What the overall figures show is that borough councils in London now have control over less than half (46%) of secondary school places. Three boroughs (Bromley, Brent and Southwark) have no control at all, whilst a fourth (Hillingdon) has just one community school with 150 pupils. A further two boroughs (Lambeth and Wandsworth) control less than 20% of secondary school places.

If you live in one of these boroughs and don’t want your child educated by a Tory carpet merchant (or similar) who stuffs the governing boards of his schools with family members, or by a faith group whose beliefs you do not share, you are going to find it hard or impossible to get a place at a local school. Even more worryingly, if your child doesn’t fit the partially-selective admissions criteria for an academy and is discriminated against by voluntary aided schools for being of the wrong or no faith, they could be forced into a daily trek across borough boundaries, far from friendship groups and support networks, to find a school place. And its no good appealing to your local council for help – they’re fast abrogating all responsibility for admissions. To add insult to injury, you probably had no say in the makeup of your borough’s secondary schools.

Whose fault is the de-democratisation of the English school system? Yes, the government must take some of the blame. But the reality is that the national framework is far more flexible than local authorities want to believe. With the permission of the Secretary of State, new community schools (i.e. comprehensives) can indeed be built, but council officer inertia favours the much easier academy option. Councillors, in particular Liberal Democrat and Conservative members, will wring their hands incessantlyabout the government ‘forcing’ them to build academies whilst happily refusing to run a full competition which could include a community school bid from the council themselves. This is occurring across London, for example in Lib Dem-Tory run Camden and Southwark.

It is always concerning to see councillors happily going along with the destruction of local democracy, especially when it is effectively self-inflicted. We discussed last weekthe effect of a local income tax on Scottish local democracy. If something similar were to happen in England (heaven forfend), what exactly would be the point of a council like Southwark, which has palmed off almost all responsibility for education? The old cliche would be half way to becoming true – the council does just collect your bins.

As you might have gathered, The Animal is no fan of academies or voluntary aided schools, and has real doubts about foundation schools. But if we have to have diversity of provision, then Labour councillors and councils should be promoting the full range of the system. Wouldn’t it be nice to see a promise in Labour’s manifestos for next years local elections that councils run by the party will always hold a full competition for every new secondary school, permitting bids for community schools?


  1. I’m genuinely surprised by the 90%+ in Richmond. Saying that, considering the makeup I doubt the term “failing schools” has ever cropped up in relation to any school in the borough.

    Coincidently (albeit a little off-topic) I was reading an article about academies by Fiona Millar printed in the Guardian at the end of last year: “An academy by any other name”. (Link here:

    One issue which the article bypasses: Only one of the three proposed academies in Sunderland is anywhere near being finished. The almost comically named Academy 360 is opening this month, I believe.

    Considering this article (and the article it refers to) was written at the end of the last year it was very presumptuous of Estelle Morris to parade the ‘Sunderland model’ around with such conviction. Probably wise to at least wait for the first set of results to come out.

    Comment by A casual observer — September 9, 2008 @ 5:51 pm | Reply

  2. That’s an interesting link to Millar’s article – thanks.
    On Richmond – yes it is quite a surprising result. There is only one non-community school, a small voluntary aided school, in the entire borough. As you say, this is no doubt at least in part due to the fact that with most of the borough’s schools classifying as ‘good’ (by exam results at least), the impetus for diversification isn’t there. With high performing schools, probably with well-invested in premises, and a population that isn’t expanding very fast, its unlikely that the government’s Building Schools for the Future funding has been much called upon in Richmond, which is where a lot of the pressure for acadamisation comes from, both from the DfES/DCSF and from within local government itself.

    Comment by Political Animal — September 9, 2008 @ 11:23 pm | Reply

  3. […] September The Animal wrote about the increasing lack of local authority control over secondary schools in London partially as […]

    Pingback by Academies: selecting for easy success « Confessions of a Political Animal — November 14, 2008 @ 3:16 pm | Reply

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