Ed Balls's attitude to parent-sponsored academies

Many people have asked me what the implications are of Ed Balls's statement earlier this week about two similar projects to ours. He told a group of parents in Kirklees that he did not support their call for a new secondary school -- he said an "independent study" has established that there are already a sufficient number of places in the area -- but gave a more sympathetic response to the Neighbourhood School Campaign, a parent group in Wandsworth. In a letter to Wandsworth Council he said that he had met with the NSC and that if Wandsworth wants to redraft its Building Schools for the Future plans to include provision for a new school in Battersea he would be happy for the Department for Children, Schools and Families to work with the Council on this.

Does this mean that Ed Balls supports the idea of parent-sponsored academies? The cynical reading of this letter is that it's a meaningless gesture designed to shore up support for Martin Linton, the Battersea Labour MP who was elected in 2005 with a majority of just 163, one of the slimmest in the country. Is there any way Wandsworth Council would risk the £300 million in BSF funding it has already been promised by resubmitting its strategic educational plan? In a key passage, Balls writes:  

If it is considered appropriate to bring forward an alternative strategy for the delivery of your BSF investment then this will be reviewed in the same way as the original strategy. Wandsworth will need to work very quickly to ensure that any changes to its strategy are carried out in a timely fashion as the competition and consultation issues that could arise from such a change could take some months to conclude. A change to the sequence of the capital programme might therefore be necessary to avoid your BSF programme across 16 schools being brought to a halt.

If I was Paul Robinson, Wandsworth's Director of Children's Services, that paragraph would make me nervous. Thanks to the country's huge public deficit, there's already a question mark hanging over the BSF funding that's been promised to local authorities -- not just in Wandsworth, but across the country -- and any Director of Children's Services would need to think very carefully before revisiting a plan that's been agreed for fear that it might increase that risk. The words "some months to conclude" will send a shiver down his spine.

A more optimistic reading of the letter is that Balls is leaving the door open to Wandsworth -- and, by implication, other local authorities -- to resubmit their BSF plans in response to local campaigns by parent groups who disagree with an LA's decision about where to allocate its BSF funding. And perhaps the implication of that final sentence is that he'd be happy to try and do this in a way that didn't jeopardise the delivery of that investment.

At present, it's hard to see what bearing this would have on our plans, even if Labour are re-elected and Ed Balls remains at the DCSF. In those circumstances, we won't be urging Ealing to redraft its plans regarding how to spend its own allocation of £300 million BSF funding. Rather, we'll be arguing that it should apply for additional BSF money since it has under-estimated just how many new secondary school places will be needed over the next ten years.

Some people will think it's pie-in-the-sky to imagine there will be any additional BSF funding available, but the government has a statutory duty to provide secondary school places to all the children that need them, so money to fund additional places in Ealing will have to come from somewhere.

If the Tories win the election, by contrast, our lives will be easier. They've said they'd allow groups like ours -- and groups like the one in Kirklees and Wandsworth -- to apply directly to the DCSF for capital funding, cutting out local authorities. And the application process will be simpler than the BSF application process, enabling us to secure funding more quickly than if Ealing routed the application through the BSF programme.

We also have the advantage of wanting to lease a building. It isn't clear what a Labour government's attitude to that proposal would be, but the Tories have said they're all in favour. In principle, Labour should be keen, too, since it will mean the cost of creating the new secondary school places needed in the borough will be far lower than if the DCSF had to fund a new build through BSF. The average cost of a new build is £30 million, whereas we'd be able to fit-out a leased building for less than £5 million.

Fiendishly complicated, as always.  But we're confident we could make progress under either a Labour or Conservative government -- it would just be a lot faster under the Tories. The other advantage is that if Cameron squeaks in we won't be saddled with the task of persuading Ealing Council to apply for additional funding on our behalf. Something tells me that won't be a walk in the park.