Ahead of the General Election last year, NSN outlined its policy priorities for the next Government.

Since then, the world has been rocked by the impact of the COVID-19 global pandemic, and schools have had to battle challenges they wouldn’t have even perceived just last year.

Throughout the pandemic, teachers have gone above and beyond to keep schools open and pupils learning. But this year has also exposed further the challenges in our education system that are letting parents and their children down.

This Spending Review is an opportunity to deliver on the manifesto pledges made at the last election – to generate real and lasting change for communities across England, by improving standards of education so that this generation is not blighted by the impact of the pandemic for their whole lives.

Levelling up

Nine years after the first free schools opened their doors, evidence shows their transformational impact: free schools are the highest performing type of state schools at GCSE and A level, and are more likely to be rated Outstanding by Ofsted.

The free schools and academies programmes were established to bring innovative approaches to the system, and drive up standards in communities with low educational outcomes. It aimed to ensure that schools became part of the social infrastructure of communities, so that all pupils, no matter their background, could access high-quality education.

There are now over 550 open free schools, providing communities with higher standards and innovation, often in areas of high disadvantage.

But there are far too many areas that are yet to benefit from the programme. This is particularly the case across the north and midlands. As of November 2020, over half (53%) of all open free schools are located in London and the south.

Free schools have a track record of success and delivering for communities, but there are not enough of them for their impact to be felt evenly across England. Of the 37 local authorities that account for 25% most educationally deprived areas in the country, 33 (89%) are located in the north, midlands, and Yorkshire and the Humber. Pockets of excellence in Bradford (Dixons Academies Trust) and Birmingham (Star Academies) show that free schools work in areas of deprivation – indeed, they are the top two performing academy trusts in the country. As part of the Government’s manifesto commitment to open more free schools, and level up opportunity, funding must be allocated to ensure more free school waves can be launched next year, with a particular focus on the north and midlands, where these areas have yet to benefit from the programme.

COVID-19 community recovery

There are over 220 free schools in pre-opening – the period between approval from the Department for Education to open, and actually opening to children. Of these, just 25 are in the north; 45 are in the midlands; and 12 are in Yorkshire and the Humber. Of this 82 (36% of all free schools in pre-opening), 31 have languished in the pre-opening for over three years already.

In just nine years, free schools have gone from inception to the top performing type of state school. With their successful track record of improving outcomes at pace, funding must be made available to fast-track the opening of these free schools that have already been approved to open in areas across the north and midlands that are likely to be impacted most by job losses and economic downturn.

This is crucial to the recovery of schools in these areas of high deprivation and persistent low attainment, such as Sandwell, Nottingham and Walsall where entrenched low standards are likely to be exacerbated by the growing attainment gap.

Meaningful change to alternative provision

Research by the Centre for Social Justice found some severely educationally deprived areas, including Knowsley and Hartlepool, have no properly registered and regulated alternative provision.

Further, there are eight local authorities that have no state-funded AP rated Good or Outstanding by Ofsted, and in Blackpool, the number of children requiring AP schooling is five times the national average but there is only one AP school to try and meet all of this need.

This is particularly concerning as Ofsted has previously highlighted the scourge of unregistered alternative provision settings being used by local authorities – meaning the most vulnerable in society are being let down.

It is the most vulnerable young people and families who may feel the greatest impact by this pandemic. Alternative provision must have a fair funding settlement as part of this Spending Review, guaranteeing they can remain open for pupils who need extra support and cannot thrive in mainstream education.

But beyond this, we need further investment in new alternative provision. In 2018, Ofsted estimated that 6,000 children were being educated in unregistered illegal schools. We cannot allow a lack of provision to write off life chances for any young person. To deliver this, capital funding needs to be allocated now to allow these schools to open in two to three years.

The Department should launch a new wave for alternative provision free schools. These should be targeted in local authorities where there is no regulated, state-funded AP setting, and in other areas across the north and midlands that have above-average demand for these schools which provide extra support.  

Businesses giving back

Inevitably, businesses of all sizes will grapple with the consequences of COVID-19 for a number of years to come. For those that have remained buoyant, anecdotal evidence given to New Schools Network suggests ongoing professional development and training opportunities have taken the brunt of cost-cutting measures. Meanwhile, the Department for Education has updated the Governance Handbook with a call for schools and academy trusts to ensure governance reflects the diversity of the communities they serve.

NSN’s Academy Ambassadors Programme recognises the importance of a diverse trust board (in thought, background, and experience) and has doubled down on its commitment to providing a diverse, broad pool of candidates from senior business positions to academy trust boards.

Not only does this bolster governance of academy trusts across the country, it also provides businesses with a free, fully supported CPD offer for staff, meaning those people leading the country’s economic recovery can continue to access high-quality, meaningful developmental opportunities. 

The Government must back businesses, and support academy trusts, by ensuring governor recruitment services are fully-funded and remain free to businesses and schools.  

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