THE growing trend for Oxfordshire schools to become academies could lead to “disaster”, an education expert has claimed.
There are now 26 academies in Oxfordshire out of 275 state-funded schools, and a further 16 county schools which have applied to convert.
That includes five schools, Harriers Ground, in Banbury, Chiltern Edge, near Reading, the Warriner, in Bloxham, Iffley Mead in Oxford and Willowcroft in Didcot, which have not been made public until now.
Schools that become academies gain greater independence, free themselves from local authority control and can gain extra funding.
But education expert John Howson, visiting professor at Oxford Brookes University, said the concern was that as more schools become academies, Oxfordshire County Council would have less funding to support those that remain unders its control.
He said: “I think there is a strong risk that unless somebody gets a grip on it, there will be a wholesale meltdown in the primary sector if there is a strong drive towards academies and that would be a disaster.
“Five years down the line I think the education department will just be part of a learning and culture department, with libraries, museums and a bit of learning.
“Essentially, those schools left behind will get a worse service because there will be less funds.”
Between the 1940s and the 1970s, England and Wales operated a “tripartite” system of education, which included grammar schools, secondary modern and secondary technical schools.
This three-tier system led to concerns of inequality, and Prof Howson fears some schools may be using the academy arrangement to be selective.
He said: “The time when some children could get an excellent education and some people were left to a second class education has got to be left behind.
“That system was not fit for purpose. And while that might not be the purpose of the academies system, a report which has just come out does suggest some schools are practising a form of covert selection.”
According to the Department for Education, the responsibility for standards in academies and holding sponsors to account sits with the department itself and the Schools Commissioner.
Local authorities can offer support and expertise to raise standards, but there is no requirement for the academy to work with them.
The key to maintaining standards, according to acadmies that have converted, is schools working together.
Didcot Girls’ School converted in August and was the first academy of a multi-academy trust.
Headteacher Rachael Warwick said: “For us it’s about the potential for future collaboration with primary schools and St Birinus as our partner secondary school.”
King Alfred’s Academy, Wantage, was the first converter academy in Oxfordshire.
Headteacher Simon Spiers said he was convinced that becoming an academy has had a direct impact on teaching and learning because the school has been able to use funds as it sees fit.
He said: “I think the landscape is changing so rapidly from a time when schools expected the authority to supply everything – those days have gone.
“It’s going to be down to the schools to look at where to get the best service from and if you are a small school, that is quite daunting, which is why schools should be working together.”
A Department for Education spokeswoman, said: “The best local authorities have established ways of working together with academies and are encouraging schools to form self-improvement clusters or finding suitable sponsors for underachieving schools.
“While the majority of academies are thriving under great leadership, if an academy does not make the progress we expect, we will take action to make it improve.”