At secondary level, 57.6 per cent of schools in the county are rated good or outstanding by Ofsted, meaning 64.3 per cent of pupils attend a good or outstanding school, based on inspection results upt to the end of October.
However, when you compare the maintained schools to the academies – state-funded but outside local-authority control – the difference is quite stark.
A respectable 70.6 per cent of maintained schools are good or outstanding, with 78.4 per cent of pupils in the council-controlled sector attend one of these, while just 43.8 per cent of academies are rated this way by Ofsted and just 56.3 per cent of academy pupils are at a good or outstanding school.
The impact is far greater at secondary level as academies account for 17 of Northumberland’s 33 secondaries, while just 15 of the county’s 122 primaries are academised and outside council control.
Nonetheless, the maintained sector still performs much better in terms of Ofsted ratings with 88.2 per cent of schools rated good or outstanding and 88.9 per cent of pupils at schools ranked accordingly.
In comparison, in the academy sector, 54.5 per cent of schools are good or outstanding and this accounts for 55.3 per cent of pupils.
Given the small number of primary academies, the overall figures are much stronger than at secondary level – 85.1 per cent of schools and 84.3 per cent of pupils.
However, the Northumberland County Council briefing note which accompanies the figures added that ‘it would be misleading to say that the poor Ofsted ratings of some academies is attributable solely to their form of governorship; a significant proportion of the predecessor schools of these academies were rated as either requires improvement or inadequate immediately prior to academy conversion’.
Equally, it would appear that academisation has not been a silver bullet to help struggling schools improve.
Coun Allan Hepple, a Labour councillor who requested the breakdown at the November meeting of the county council’s audit committee, said that ‘it shows how this system isn’t suitable for our county nor our children’.
He continued: “It doesn’t readily improve opportunities for children and schools need to be brought back under the council’s care as a matter of urgency.
“Reducing service delivery across the whole council in order to invest in this shambolic and governless system is not the right thing to promote.”
His colleague, Coun Bernard Pidcock, the shadow education portfolio holder, added: “This report shows how a real effort needs to be made to allow councils to help families get the best education possible for their children wherever they live in Northumberland.
“The Tory Government needs to change the rules and allow councils to steer academies in their areas towards proper improvement mechanisms, dragging them up to council-maintained schools’ standards without pouring ratepayers’ cash in.”
But Coun Wayne Daley, the council’s deputy leader and cabinet member for children’s services, responded: “We want to work with all schools in Northumberland, maintained and academies, to achieve the highest standards of education and to improve educational performance and outcomes for all of our children and young people across the county.
“Recent overall results in Northumberland, from early years to GCSE, have been some of the best in recent times, but there is still a lot of work to be done.
“There are instances where the slow rate of improvement in academy schools is of concern. Some of these were performing poorly as maintained schools and therefore decided to convert to become academies.
“In these cases we wish to be more involved in bringing about rapid improvement. We are working closely with the Regional Schools Commissioner so that we can have a more formal and positive role and we will be meeting them as a matter of urgency to discuss how we can all work in partnership to support significant improvement to teaching and learning in the county.
“The county is also set to benefit from the Â£24million Opportunity North East fund, a Government investment which we lobbied for and which will help poorly performing schools.
“As a council, we have agreed to a long-term programme of capital investment funding to bring learning environments up to date. This is important for all of our children in Northumberland – whether they attend a maintained school or an academy.
“No frontline services are being impacted by our decision to invest in education for all. This administration is proud to offer investment for every child, whether at a council-run, academy or special educational needs school.”
Academies were introduced under Tony Blair’s Labour Government, but by the time the party left office in 2010, there were only around 200 – one per cent of all English schools.
But this was ramped up massively under the Conservative-led Coalition Government and the then Education Secretary Michael Gove, with thousands of academies established by the time he left the post in 2014 – to a point where almost six in 10 secondary schools and one in five primaries were academies
Government statistics from September 2018 show that 66.4 per cent of secondaries are academies, with just 25.6 per cent still council maintained, while 29.8 per cent of primaries are academies and 69.2 per cent still under local authority control.
Ben O'Connell, Local Democracy Reporting Service