Bishop of St Albans asks Government about challenges for rural areas when small schools become academies

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On 28th April 2016 the Bishop of St Albans, Rt Revd Alan Smith, asked an oral question in the House of Lords on the challenges facing rural schools in conversion to academy status. The transcript of the answer, his follow-up question and those of other members is below.

The Lord Bishop of St Albans: To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the challenges to be faced by small rural schools in the conversion to academy status.

Bishop of St AlbansThe Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Education (Lord Nash) (Con): My Lords, we fully recognise the challenges faced by small rural schools and are committed to supporting them; for instance, they will each have a named adviser in the conversion process. Many rural schools have been underfunded through an unfair system. Our new national funding formula will match funding to need and reflect their unique circumstances, ensuring that they remain at the heart of their communities.

The Lord Bishop of St Albans: I thank the Minister for his response and for those details. However, does he recognise that this is about not just the viability of rural schools but the viability and sustainability of whole rural communities, given the important role that schools play in attracting and retaining workers in rural areas? Many people are concerned that, if rural schools are put into multi-academy trusts, those trusts will not have the same obligation to take into account the wider issues of rural sustainability; indeed, there may be huge pressure for mergers and closures based simply on finance and nothing else. In the light of that, can the Minister tell us what the Government intend to do to prevent that happening?

Lord Nash: The right reverend Prelate raises an extremely good point. No strong school will close as a result of the policies in the White Paper. Indeed, we think that schools will be more sustainable as a result of joining together in local clusters of schools in multi-academy trusts because of the substantial staff benefits that flow from that, and the efficiency benefits, which result in more resources being available for the classroom. We fully recognise the importance of rural schools to their communities. MATs cannot close schools without the Secretary of State’s consent, and we would expect our considerations to remain the same for any future school closures.

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon (Lab): My Lords, the sustainability of rural schools and the affordability of rural housing are inextricably linked. What discussions have taken place between the Department for Education and the Housing Minister about the implications of the Government’s policy and the housing Bill and how they join together? Also, why are the Government not listening to the thousands of councillors, including Tory councillors, and people up and down the country—Conservative MPs as well as Labour MPs—who say that this policy will not work? Why are the Government not listening?

Lord Nash: We actively discuss housing with DCLG in relation to making sure that there are enough places available for schools in anticipation of housing developments and Section 106 agreements, for example. We are listening to councillors. Many councils recognise that, with many schools becoming academies, they no longer have the ability to support those schools. Many councils recognise, as do most people in the education system, that the best way to support schools is through local school-to-school support.

Baroness McIntosh of Pickering (Con): My Lords, will my noble friend the Minister give the House an assurance that the 40 least-funded education authorities will have per capita funding addressed so that rural areas will benefit greatly from the new funding formula?

Lord Nash: We have very much taken into account the issues of rural schools in the national funding formula. They will be getting both a lump sum and a sparsity factor. I hope the noble Baroness will be pleased with the outcome.

Lord Storey (LD): When you close a rural school, you literally tear the heart out of that community. The issue is not about structures; it must surely be about resources. If the Government are hell-bent on making rural schools part of multi-academy trusts, does the Minister agree that such a trust must have its other schools within that community, not outside it? In other words, the trust should be only in that county area. Secondly, we have seen governing bodies of trust schools being abolished. Can he assure us that every village school will keep its governing body?

Lord Nash: As I just mentioned, rural schools will get a lump sum for a sparsity factor in the national funding formulas, so we are cognisant of their particular circumstances. As I think the noble Lord knows, we very much favour local schools working together in local clusters. Indeed, in the last few years hundreds of multi-academy trusts operating in their local regional clusters have come together, so this is absolutely essential.

Baroness Armstrong of Hill Top (Lab): My Lords, I wonder if the Minister will understand this. I have visited a local school in Weardale, up in the north Pennines, where we have several schools with fewer than 50 pupils. I spent the day at that school, and the involvement of the local community in it both as governors, including the chair of governors, and as parental support is absolutely critical to children there having a whole and good experience. It happens to be an outstanding school. However, I also know from the multi-academy trusts that there is real concern that they will be asked to do things which they do not want or have the real capacity to do, because they are concentrating on schools where achievement really needs shifting. This is going to stretch the academy chains to breaking point. The Government are getting it wrong from both ends. Why will they not listen?

Lord Nash: I fully understand the point that the noble Baroness makes. I would recommend that any small, rural school which is concerned about the issue talks to people who run multi-academy trusts to understand the substantial staff benefits that there are from working together in this way. Most people whom I talk to in multi-academy trusts say, “When I was running one school, I used to lose all my good staff. Now I can provide them with career development opportunities across the group”. These benefits are very substantial.

(via Parliament.uk)