In recent months, there has been a great deal of speculation and comment about whether or not A Levels would be provided in Knowsley. This followed an announcement by Halewood Academy that the Academy’s Trust was looking to cease provision in Halewood from August 2017.
So what’s next for young people in Knowsley? And what is the truth behind all the rumours and speculation? We sat down with Councillor Gary See, Knowsley Council’s Cabinet Member for Children’s Services to find out more and get the answers to some of the key questions being asked.
What is the council’s role when it comes to A Levels?
In the past, the Council was directly responsible for organising and funding schools in Knowsley, and lots of people probably think that this is still the case. In fact, Government policy for a number of years now has been to reduce the role of local government in education and instead increase the amount of independence given to schools, not just in Knowsley but all across the country.
What that means is that we now have more independent schools – in Knowsley, four of our six secondary schools are already independent Academies and can make decisions without needing our agreement or approval. The Council’s job is now to try to coordinate the overall system and also to encourage these independent schools to “do the right thing”. We can’t force anybody to open new A Level provision and we are also no longer given the money by the Government to pay for it.
What is the latest position with regard to A Level provision?
Well, the very latest news is that there was a meeting with Schools Minister Nick Gibb and the Regional Schools Commissioner Vicky Beer in London earlier this week, which I attended alongside Paul Boyce (Knowsley Council’s Director of Children’s Services) and our local MPs Maria Eagle, George Howarth and Marie Rimmer. At that meeting, we discussed the future of A Level provision in the borough and I’m pleased to say that all parties agreed to work together to look at establishing a new and sustainable offer within Knowsley from September 2017. It was a really positive meeting and a good outcome after numerous conversations over the last few months.
What does this really mean for young people in Knowsley?
What this means is that we, the Council, are going to work with the support of Government Ministers, MPs and others to ensure that people growing up in Knowsley can, if they choose, have the option of studying for A-Levels with a high quality provider within their home borough.
Obviously, there is a lot to do to make this happen and there are lots of details to be worked through. But I am confident that we have a shared goal that we can work in partnership to achieve for the benefit of our young people.
Some media are reporting that is the Council making a “u-turn” by saying that they now want A Levels provided in the borough? What would you say to that?
It’s completely untrue and numerous previous statements and interviews we have given will back me up on that. Interestingly, the media reporting this are actually contradicting themselves and previous articles they have printed.
Putting that aside though, I just want to reiterate the point that we have always wanted Knowsley to be a place where A Levels are available. But the way that A Levels are funded and provided means that we are now reliant on independent providers (schools, academies and colleges) to make this possible. Towards the end of last year and at the start of 2016, we found ourselves in a situation where these providers were telling us A Level provision wasn’t sustainable and they couldn’t continue. We couldn’t prevent them from pulling out of A Level provision, which meant that we had to act to support students to make decisions about their future. The choice we had at that stage was to tell young people either to go outside of the borough for A Levels or decide not to do A Levels. The priority was to ensure that our young people reach their full potential and we had to put aside our own feelings about where we would like people to do that.
We were effectively stuck with that position for the time being. The key point I would like to make is that the lack of choice didn’t mean that we didn’t have an aspiration for A Levels to be provided in the borough again in the future. We have always been clear on that, we haven’t made any “u-turns”, and this latest news is absolutely in line with what we have been doing all along.
Why is this possible now to say that you will get involved and ensure a future provision?
The proposal from Halewood Academy really highlighted that the Government needed to take clear action at a national level to support students wishing to study A Levels in Knowsley. That provided us with an opportunity to engage directly with national decision-makers on education and we found quickly that, by working with our local MPs, the doors opened for us and we were able to start conversations with people we previously had been unable to reach. We have been in talks for months and the meeting this week was the culmination of our collective efforts and a positive step forward. We will still need high quality providers to come forward.
Why do you think things will be different with this new approach when other previous providers have failed?
The difference this time is that we have the support of important national influencers who understand Knowsley better and understand what problems have been encountered here previously. It is also important to note that there is increasing confidence in Government about Knowsley and about the quality of the Academy Trusts who are already operating in the borough.
I think we also have a lot of learning from our previous experiences and feedback from providers and students which we can address directly. Obviously, the support of Government Ministers will bring a new perspective to the table, and could make a significant difference.
Why do you think there will be demand this time around when previous providers withdrew because demand was low?
We know that 900 young people from Knowsley went on to study A Levels outside of the borough last year, so we certainly know there is a significant volume of young people with the aspiration and ability to study for A Levels.
As a Council, we are working hard to boost that number by tackling our GCSE attainment levels – which our schools quite clearly also need to address. The Council pledged £1 million this year to contribute to that objective and to establish an Education Commission with the specific aim to raising attainment and results in our secondary schools – many of whom are now being run and managed by successful Multi-Academy Trusts. Progress is already being made and we will continue to push this as a priority.
Obviously, any new facility will need to attract these students in the future and we know that is a big task – but not one we will shy away from. Central to this success will be the appeal of the new offer and the way in which, or by whom, it will be delivered. We don’t know that now, but we are working on it.
Wouldn’t it just be easier to keep Halewood Academy open?
Unfortunately it’s not that simple. Halewood Academy is an independent organisation and we have no power to influence the decisions they make. Clearly, providing A Levels there was not working out for the Academy and they decided that they couldn’t continue. I know that their proposal to cease provision wasn’t made without careful consideration and looking at options to keep it going but they had to be realistic about the future and they didn’t feel it was possible to continue.
Looking at a totally new provision gives us a chance to start from scratch – find out what people want, the range and type of subjects they want to study etc. It also gives us a chance to look at providers again with a view to securing the best and most able organisation to run this new facility. It provides us with a great opportunity to get the best teachers and experts in their field.
How is the new provision going to work, be based etc?
As I’ve said, this work is very much in the early stages so I don’t have a great deal of detail to share. What I can say now is that we will be working to identify an expert provider to develop and deliver this new offer. This appointment will be key to all future aspects of this and will help to determine the details around the future offer.
From a Council perspective, our priority is securing the most able and experienced provider(s) to ensure that the new offer is attractive and accessible for as many of our residents as possible.
When will we know more? What are the next steps?
We will be meeting regularly with MPs and Ministers in the coming weeks and months and – once we have more information to share – we will share it. We know that this is a key issue for our residents so we are keen to be as open as possible and ensure people are kept regularly updated. We are working to the target of having a new A Level offer available in Knowsley from September 2017.
In terms of Halewood Academy specifically, what is the current position? Was that discussed at your meeting?
Yes, it was discussed. In many ways, the Halewood Academy situation had led to us having the meeting in the first place, so naturally it was part of the conversation. The Regional Schools Commissioner and the Department for Education have considered Halewood Academy’s proposal to withdraw from A Levels and will imminently be feeding back to the Academy leadership with their decision on this. The process is then that we, as the local authority, will be informed by the Academy of the outcome. Until that decision is finally made, I am not in a position to comment any further.
Are there any other outcomes from the meeting you can share with us?
The meeting was specifically set up to discuss A Level provision in Knowsley. However, we did have a wider discussion about education in Knowsley and we received positive feedback on the actions we have taken as a Council to attract high quality Academy Trusts into the borough and the actions we have taken to establish an Education Commission (which will commence its work in the autumn term). The Minister expressed his confidence in the work we are doing and committed to providing us with additional help.
All in all, it’s been a really positive week for us and for education in Knowsley – it feels great to have made such progress for our young people.