Hackney mayor Jules Pipe

Helping: Hackney’s elected mayor, Jules Pipe. Photograph: Hackney Council

A lobbying group chaired by Mayor of Hackney Jules Pipe is supporting government plans to introduce free schools across the capital.

London Councils, a cross-party organisation funded by member authorities, said in a statement last month (16 October) that they would act as midwife for the controversial project.

“London councils [has] agreed to help high-quality, cost-effective new schools to open in areas where they are needed,” said the statement, before “demanding” that the schools be accountable to local authorities.

The introduction of free schools also has the support of Stephen Twigg MP, Shadow Education Secretary, who said at a London Councils event that “free schools could be an important part of the solution” to the growing shortage of school places.

But there are concerns that failing schools in London will fall through the cracks as the expansion of academies and free schools races to meet the need for places. The BBC has reported that this shortage could reach 90,000 by 2015, leaving one in ten children without a permanent school place.

However, the BBC report goes on to say that, “many of the new places will be provided by free schools and academies [and] the borough leaders agreed to help them open in areas where they were needed.”

Though Education Secretary Michael Gove’s provisions have stripped power from councils and abolished the opening of new maintained schools, councils have accepted the expansion of academies and free schools as part of London’s ‘new schools system’.

London Councils’ own report on the matter predicts that by 2015, all of London’s secondary schools and nearly a fifth of primary schools will hold either free school or academy status. It says this “new schools system” will not be manageable unless local councils act as a “middle tier” between parents demanding consistency and accountability, and a central government promoting “diversity and autonomy” in its approach to education.

But the report does not criticise the removal of power from local councils which has already taken place. Instead, it lays out a number of suggestions for further accountability to the local authority to ensure quality control.

Jamie Duff, spokesman for the Hackney branch of the National Union of Teachers, said an informal request for local authority involvement doesn’t go far enough: “Whilst we welcome the call for greater democratic accountability, the acceptance of free schools by London Councils is a mistake.

“Academies and free schools seek to undermine the role of the community in the running of schools and promote the role of the private sector.”

He added: “Local councils should be demanding the right to open maintained, comprehensive schools that are fully accountable to the community. Asking for the right to limited regulation of free schools and academies does not go far enough.”

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