New Schools Network calls for introduction of a “parental trigger” giving parents the legal right to challenge poor performance

Wednesday, September 16, 2015
New law would give parents right to fire failing heads

The New Schools Network is calling for greater power to be put into the hands of parents when their local school is failing to perform.  A new “parental trigger” would allow parents to voice their dissatisfaction and set in motion change, ranging from an immediate action plan through to a change in leadership.

Set out in a submission to the Education Select Committee, the parental trigger would mirror other mechanisms in the public sector that give a greater voice to the public. The trigger would give parents a legal right to a formal response from their Regional Schools Commissioner if a number of them complain about their local school. If the Commissioner agrees there is a need for change, actions taken as a result of this parental challenge could include:

  • An immeadiate action plan to improve the school;
  • Conversion to academy status; or
  • A change in the leadership of the school.

Nick Timothy, Director of the New Schools Network said:

“Free schools are putting parents in charge, because they’re giving parents more choice about where to send their children to school. They’re also better placed to give parents what they want because free schools give more control to headteachers, teachers, parents and governors rather than politicians and bureaucrats.

“But there needs to be more accountability in the system so parents can get the change they want when a local school is failing. We believe the ‘parental trigger’ will be an important legal right for parents and a way of driving up standards in schools that aren’t performing well. I hope the Education Select Committee and the Government consider our proposal seriously.”

Not enough good school places to go around

We know that parents often take extreme measures to get their child into a good school. Recent research by Santander showed that 26 per cent of parents with children of school age have bought or rented a new property in order to live in the catchment area of their preferred school. Of those who moved, 45 per cent said they would move straight back out of the area once the child had secured a place, or had already done so.

Overall, one in ten families still does not get their first choice of school. Some do not get any of their top three school choices, and last year more than 52,500 children were forced into schools their parents did not want them to attend.

There simply are not enough good places to go round.  One in six children go to failing primary schools and nearly one in four children go to failing secondary schools.  In fact, because of the growing population, new school places are being created in failing schools. One in five of the new places created by expanding primary schools in the last five years – that is, 71,000 – has been in a school that isn’t good enough. 

‘Parental trigger’ mechanisms

The ability of parents to effect change in schools that their children attend is just as minimal. Just four out of almost 8,000 Ofsted inspections conducted in the last academic year were triggered by parents’ complaints.

The new parental trigger should be subject to a minimum threshold and there are already mechanisms in the public sector that could provide models:

  • The "power of recall" allowing votes to force a by-election when MPs have been found guilty of wrongdoing, and 10% of constituents have signed a petition calling for their removal.
  • The "community trigger" enabling victims of anti-social behaviour to require agencies to review the appropriateness of their response to a reported crime.
  • The threshold of 10,000 people signing a petition triggering a parliamentary debate.

The New Schools Network's submission to the Selcet Committee is in response to a call for evidence about the Regional Schools Commissioners. 

Local authorities not providing accountability

The submission also argues that local authorities are not sufficiently accountable for repeated failure. There is little evidence that local democratic processes are responding to school failure. Of the 10 local authorities with the lowest levels of GCSE attainment that held council elections in May 2015, all saw the largest party retain or gain seats. Given this lack of accountability, RSCs should be given greater powers to intervene in maintained schools where the local authority is not taking action to improve them.

Other recommendations in the submission include:

  • RSCs should be given targets for the creation of free schools in areas of low standards. Free schools are not only more likely to be rated ‘Outstanding’ than other state schools, the early evidence suggests that free schools can be a powerful catalyst for other schools to improve.  RSCs should be required to prioritise opening new free schools in areas of low standards.
  • RSCs should also be given targets for a proportion of new free schools to be set up entirely new providers. Some of the most successful free schools have been started by ‘new providers’ who have not directly managed a school before. So far, 13 of these schools have been rated as ‘Outstanding’ by Ofsted.
  • RSCs should approve proposals from local authorities to expand existing schools. Where there is a need for places, councils are able to extend existing schools. However, too many places are being created in schools that are failing. Research by New Schools Network shows that one in five of the new places created by expanding primary schools in the last five years – 71,000 in total – have been opened in schools rated as ‘Requires Improvement’ or ‘Inadequate’ by Ofsted. RSCs should be given powers to approve these proposals, so that only good or outstanding schools expand.
  • Ministers should continue to have the final say on the approval of new free schools. Ministers are better placed to ensure that final decisions about free school applications are taken without being affected by any local or institutional bias. 

Review the full press release with notes and analysis.