The increasingly complex landscape of secondary education in Norfolk
- Credit: Archant
The choice can seem bewildering: community schools, foundation schools, voluntary aided schools, voluntary controlled schools, convertor academies, sponsored academies, free schools and independent schools.
Over the past couple of generations, different types of mainstream schools have proliferated, and each new wave of free schools brings yet more diversity.
In Norfolk, the new academic year sees the opening of the Sir Isaac Newton Sixth Form free school in Norwich, specialising in maths and science, and the Thetford Alternative Provision Free School, for pupils with behavioural, emotional or social difficulties, while nationally free schools span the range from those specialising in autism to one which practices transcendental meditation.
So what is the picture in Norfolk, and what does it mean for parents and children?
The biggest changes are in the secondary school sector, which Gordon Boyd, Norfolk County Council's assistant director of children's services, describes as a 'mixed economy'.
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Of the 59 schools, nearly half are now academies, or have received approval to convert. They have, in Department for Education phraseology, 'broken free of local authority control'.
Most are convertor academies: schools deemed to be performing well which decided to become academies, sometimes because of increased powers to vary the curriculum, sometimes because of financial benefits, and can stand alone.
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But now increasing numbers are becoming academies because they are deemed to be failing, and told to become an academy under the umbrella of a sponsor, replacing the link to County Hall with that to an alternative over-arching body.
And although some local schools have joined national chains of academies, the running is now being made by two Norfolk groups, the Inspiration Trust and the Transforming Education in Norfolk (TEN) Group.
The number of community schools, which have the closest ties to the local authority, has fallen to 16. The three church schools, and five foundation or trust schools, have looser ties with Norfolk County Council, and another free school, the Jane Austen College, will open next September.
There are also seven schools in the fee-paying sector.
And adding to this structural diversity, just over 40 secondary schools have specialist school status in one or more subjects.
Successive governments have tried to increase choice for parents and children, but some say Norfolk's geography makes the choice on offer more theoretical than practical for many.
Colin Collis, county secretary of the NASUWT teaching union, said: 'That may sound good in principle, and in certain urban areas that may be practical, but for a certain number of parents in the county that's illusory because of the geographical distance, and they have the option of only going to one school.'
South West Norfolk MP and education minister Elizabeth Truss said she fully supported the increased diversity in education in Norfolk.
She said: 'I think it's a really good thing these schools are emerging, which are giving children choice. We have the Thetford alternative provision school. We have got the maths and science school which is offering really exciting university-style classes. These opportunities were not available to Norfolk students and parents before.'
And while she said there was increased competition between schools to attract pupils – 'like friendly rivalry' – this did not mean they did not also cooperate and collaborate.
She said: 'I think competition does help schools raise their game, both in terms of academic standards, but in other ways as well. When the Norwich Free School opened 50 weeks a year, other parents thought 'why can't I have that at my school?' It encourage other schools to think if they offered that, it will bring more people into their school.
'I think having different offers out there makes other schools think about what they can do to be more attractive.'
However, Mr Collis said academies are less democratically accountable than community schools, because they are accountable to central and not local government, and said parents found it harder to make appeals at academies.
'I think parents should look behind an Ofsted report and should not assume that changes in structures of education are as important as all that. It's what happens in schools, and that's not always reflected in Ofsted reports or names of schools.'
He added: '[The academy programme] is about the ability of academy sponsors to make a profit out of education. That is the long-term goal.'
A spokesman for the Department for Education branded the claim 'absurd', and added: 'We have repeatedly made it clear that we will not introduce for-profit schools.'