Hackney’s deputy mayor is calling for a change in the law to allow councils to intervene in failing schools, regardless of what type they are.
Local authorities currently have no powers to step in, other than on safeguarding grounds, if concerns are raised at academies, independent schools, or free schools.
The issue has been brought into focus by the case of Hackney New School (HNS), which was recently rated ‘Inadequate’ by Ofsted having lost five headteachers in the space of two years.
Councillors are now heavily criticising the free school model, with Deputy Mayor Cllr Anntoinette Bramble (Lab, London Fields) saying that the Town Hall’s ability to intervene at HNS were “really, really limited”, despite a wide understanding that it had been failing its students.
Cllr James Peters (Lab, De Beauvoir) said: “HNS was managed in such a way that it really was failing the children who went there.
“To my mind it is a real indictment of the government’s free schools programme, which has allowed people to set up and run a school with public money in a location that is frankly completely inappropriate, without having the outdoor space that children need.”
A 4/5 July Ofsted report catalogues ‘unacceptable’ incidences of racist, homophobic, and sexist bullying at HNS, urging the school in particular to remove examples of ‘extremist, sexualised and homophobic graffiti’ around the school building which had not been removed for a month between inspections.
Some staff were found to be using “inappropriate verbal aggression and confrontation” to deal with pupils’ behaviour, which inspectors said “makes a bad situation even worse”.
Ofsted’s criticism highlighted the way children with SEND and those with English as a second language were treated in being set inappropriate work, saying that “what is sometimes interpreted as their difficult and stubborn behaviour is, rather, frustration and resignation”.
Councillors at a 29 October Town Hall meeting also called into question the levels of interim funding provided by the Department for Education (DfE) to support HNS.
Though it was not revealed at the meeting how much funding has been provided, Cllr Bramble confirmed that it does not cover both academic support for the children as well as alterations to the building, which she described as “not fit for purpose”.
The Deputy Mayor and education chief is now calling not just for increased local authority powers under new legislation, but for all free schools to be built in line with an area’s local plan and in partnership with a local authority.
Criticism at the meeting was limited to systemic failures, with Cllr Bramble saying that the DfE was not designed to support free schools in the same way that local authorities support their own, due to its lack of local knowledge.
Bramble expressed her confidence in the current headteacher and senior leadership team of HNS, saying that they “seem very committed to the school and really want to turn things around”.
Cllr Bramble said: “The challenge and the tension for local authorities is that government policy has dictated a very fragmented situation in the education sector, so actually you respond in different ways to the structure and function of the school as opposed to its performance.
“We are committed to every child in every school, irrespective of its status. We will be knocking on that door to say, ‘Actually, we know and understand there are concerns, and we want to work with you’.
“We don’t just sit back, it’s our children irrespective of any setting that they’re in. So we will work and try our best to intervene, whether it’s speaking to the DfE or the Regional School Commissioner or lobbying our local MP.
“But actually what we really need is a change in legislation so that this government understands that whatever a school’s status is, once you need to intervene that power should be across the piece.
“I hope I’m coming across really clearly – I have no issue with any particular school. If you are a free school and you have our children, I will support you, if you’re an academy, I will support you – but the system is failing our children as a whole and really needs looking at.
“A lot of public money has been spent on a system that doesn’t work and our powers to intervene [with Hackney New School] were really, really limited. So even as a local authority when you’re outside the system and you can see those concerns, you don’t have the levers.”
The DfE was approached for comment.