More academies on the way for Norfolk?
Schools in Norfolk could be actively encouraged to consider academy status with the county council carving out a new role for itself focused on safeguarding quality and becoming a commercial provider of education services.
It would see the vast majority of high schools in Norfolk become academies while the authority would also work to make it easier for primary schools to convert if they want to.
But recommendations for a revised academy strategy, which will go before the county council's children's services overview and scrutiny committee next week, insist no school should be forced to embrace the new model of autonomy.
The coalition government's shift to allow all schools to take control of the way they are run has prompted the county council to take a long hard look at its approach to the new-style schools.
After supporting the creation of the first six academies in Norfolk – which saw seven under-performing high schools replaced – the authority has so far taken a neutral stance on Westminster's decision to open up the status to all schools.
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But in a report by children's services director Lisa Christensen she explains that now 'the direction of travel for government policy seems to be for all schools to be invited to become academies and move away from [local authority] governance and influence' the council has had to revise its strategy 'to reflect the new educational environment'.
Last night, opposition councillors said the authority was being forced to 'make the best out of a sorry situation' having been 'forced into a position on an appalling government policy'.
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But Alison Thomas, cabinet member for children's services said: 'Our priority is to raise levels of achievement in Norfolk's schools to ensure that every community has access to good schools and we want to ensure that we have a model of education in the county that supports that ambition.'
Fred Corbett, deputy director of children's services, said he felt, if adopted, the new strategy would reflect a 'sensible response' to the country's rapidly changing education environment.
Thursday's meeting will see councillors asked to approve a number of recommendations reflecting the different needs of the county's schools.
For secondary schools, the report suggests having an 'active influence' over schools' decision to convert in order to help create a number of chain providers – or sponsors – which would make it easier to monitor quality.
'Without forcing the issue with governing bodies that do not wish to become academies, we would apply this option to achieve a predominantly academy-based secondary system in Norfolk,' it says.
Primaries – which have so far shown little enthusiasm for academy status – would require a 'sensitive approach'. The authority could help set up groups of academies which could work together and share the burden.
'Where there is local agreement, we provide support for conversion,' the report recommends.
Free Schools would be actively supported where they were seen to offer an alternative form of education or additional places for an area in need.
And councillors are recommended to agree to have another look at Norfolk's special schools to explore whether academy status would be beneficial to them.
Mr Corbett said the government's position on academies and Free Schools was clear and as a Conservative authority there was no reason why the county council would not embrace that.
But he said the key decision for the council was to decide what role it should play in that new world. He said: 'What we are saying is how much should we encourage and how much should be trying to shape it and help schools try to be able to do it so we still have a system of autonomous schools but one where they work closely together.'
Bert Bremner, children's services spokesman for Labour, said it was right for the county council to try to retain some kind of role in schools.
He said: 'The officers have been forced into a position on an appalling government policy which is forcing all schools to be moved out of local authority influence.
'My thoughts are it's all very frightening.'
Mike Brindle, Lid Dem children's services spokesman, said this was a much-needed report after 'a period of rather bemused neutrality' by the council.
He said the authority needed to carve out a new role for itself in light of the government changes which would ensure coherence and standards were maintained in the county.