Sitting down to talk about #AcademiesInBrum with Boldmere Mums

As we continue our exploration of academies in Birmingham, we’ve sat down with the founder of Boldmere Mums, Kath Scott, a mother of two who lives in the area of the same name, to discuss and explore more about the group, what it stands for, its objectives and where they stand when it comes to the academisation of Birmingham schools.

Started back in 2012, the group, which can be found on Twitter, was set-up as a response to the shortage of school places, for children of all ages in the area of Boldmere Birmingham. For reference to those that don’t know the area, Boldmere is a suburb of The Royal Town of Sutton Coldfield in Birmingham. The population sits in at around 95,000 as of the 2011 census and is the most northern constituency within Birmingham.

The group have held protests over funding cuts and looked at establishing a new school in Boldmere to which the local council responded saying that it was ‘not needed.

Boldmere Mums and Kath Scott has been involved in education since 2012.

One key thing to remember is that, despite the group only being in its sixth year of existence it’s seen three different governments and with that three different Secretary of State for Education. So, what was the original aim of the group?

“The aim of the group was always to provide more local school places for local children to attend.”

Fast forward to the start of 2017 and their original objective has been achieved, or has it? If the document, Birmingham Education Sufficiency Requirements, a Birmingham City Council Document is anything to go by then no, this issue could soon come back to the forefront of issues that Boldmere Mums are facing.

The report outlines the growing need for more spaces in schools around Birmingham: “The levels of cohort growth across the city are unprecedented and continue to increase beyond expected levels. It is now reasonable to expect a cohort growth by anything between 750-1900 additional places over the 7 years between Reception and the end of Year 6.”

Back in July 2017, the focus for Boldmere Mums had shifted to both the admissions process that parents face and how school place planning is achieved within the local authority of Birmingham City Council. Speaking to Kath, despite only being just halfway into the year, “Boldmere Mums has contributed to how pupil places are planned with the system now being much more open and transparent now.”

The definition of success is, according to Kath, that the system now has support in place and a tier now exists for parents who did not receive any of their preferences for their child’s school place. The result? According to Kath it, “evens out the playing field, providing a much fairer and equal opportunity for both parents and families to receive one of their closest schools, not just locally, but across the entire city.

Whilst the work of Boldmere Mums still remains on school places, its focus is now to ensure that the SEND (Special Educational Needs and Disability) Inclusion Commission has adequate input from parents to ensure that the system works for both parents and their children.

Back to the subject of #AcadamiesInBrum, I asked Kath what it means to be an academy in 2017 Birmingham.

The overarching issue seems to be a lack of combined initiative between both those who run the academies and those in the local authority. As Kath said, “It means less input from the Local Authority. As such, an Academy can expand without the approval of the Authority – providing additional places that are not necessarily required and putting other, authority managed schools under greater financial pressure.”

It was an issue that we discussed early on in our discussion when Kath highlighted several academies in Birmingham that had added more spaces without the need to consult the local authority, in this case, Birmingham City Council.

Though it’s this lack of answerable authority to the local authority and instead to the Department of Education, that really starts to show the cracks in the system. One major concern Kath has is that the devolution of power from local authorities to private charities, the ones who run academies, is that it risks turning them into business, something that in the long-term Kath believes could create a separate tier of education in England. She raised serious concern that in the end, “MATs will create their own society of schools within their own sponsorship. There is a tier, whether it is named or not.

MAT’s (Multi-Academy Trusts) are run as a business, top tier academies are likely to prioritise their school against other MATs under their ‘care’. Parents have less influence on Governing bodies and therefore less control over their children’s education.”

How do you solve this? I put Kath in the position of Education Secretary – currently held by Justine Greening MP – and gave her one task, that is changing the academy system in the UK to one which she thinks would better reflect the needs, requirements and issues that the current government faces.

The only rule is that she was not allowed to completely remove them.

Overall her ideas centred around two main concepts: Giving more power to the local authority and getting an independent body to yearly audit the schools.

“Bring in clear rules and yearly audits from the FSA (Financial Services Authority). All academies should be audited on a yearly basis; paid for by the schools by an independent body. Bring them back under Local Authority Control and structure and then ensure that the apprenticeship levy is owned by the city itself, not individual schools.”

The focus of local authority is an important one. From Kath’s perspective, “All Local Authorities should have the actual “authority” to ensure that any school provides its legal duty to a child in its care; from illegal exclusions to the application of SEND provision.”

A recent government report suggested that local authorities should be allowed to set-up their own academies. The question was put forward to Kath, what would be the point? Because surely, a local authority owned Academy is the same as a state-sponsored one?

Her response? “What would be the difference? Those schools currently not under a MAT; are local authority schools anyway. However, owning academised is a different kettle of fish and the local authority should be separate from Schools, so as to maintain the integrity of decision-making.”

Don’t forget to check-out the rest of the articles in our #AcadmiesInBrum series.

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