School days to be extended in £1.5bn drive for success

George Osborne will spend £1.5 billion on additional lessons and activities at secondary schools over the next four years in a move that his aides said spelt the end of the “Victorian” finish time of 3.30pm.

In today’s budget, The Times reports that the chancellor will also confirm that local education authorities are to be dismantled and all English state schools required to become academies by 2022, bringing a close to the century-old system.

Longer days — already typical in the fee-paying sector and in many schools in the Far East — will help to improve standards and improve Britain’s position in international league tables, he will claim.

Critics are likely to counter that the additional funding will fall well short of the total bill for extra-curricular activities and more lessons.

The Treasury admits that there is only enough money for a quarter of state secondaries, about 850 schools, to offer extended hours. Longer days could also pose challenges for transport arrangements, particularly in rural areas. Mr Osborne will insist, though, that action is needed to close the productivity gap between Britain and its competitors, including emerging powers such as China.

Allowing schools to apply for funding for at least five more hours a week of tuition or activities such as sport and arts would ensure that “the next generation have the skills and confidence they need when they leave school to compete with their peers across the world”, one of the chancellor’s aides said.

Mr Osborne, who was forced to back down over radical pension reforms after pressure from David Cameron, has instead settled on education as the main theme of today’s budget, with the requirement for all state schools to become academies at its heart.

Local education authorities were created in 1902 to replace school boards. They oversee 40 per cent of secondary schools in England, although fewer primaries — about 15 per cent — have converted to academies.
Schools which refuse to put in place plans to make the switch by 2022 will be taken over and made into academies, Mr Osborne will announce.

The academy reforms will prompt a hunt for more school sponsors, with extra financial incentives likely to be required from the Treasury.

Provision must also be made for “Cinderella schools” — those that are unattractive to potential sponsors owing to their small size, limited budgets, expensive buildings or remote locations. At present the local authority is the only source of help.

Ministers are expected to follow the announcement with a review of at least 200 remaining statutory functions for education provision held by local authorities, with a view to stripping many of these away.

Town halls may, however, regain power over school admissions, one of the most sensitive areas of policy.

This responsibility now lies with academies and there are claims that some use this as a form of covert selection. Some freedoms enjoyed by academies, such as flexible funding agreements, would be diluted by a new contract, leaving some with less independence than at present.

Legislation is likely to prevent small primary schools becoming standalone academies, forcing them to join a group to achieve economies of scale.

Lucy Powell, the shadow education secretary, said: “There is no evidence to suggest that academisation leads to school improvement. Only last week the chief inspector of schools, Sir Michael Wilshaw, wrote to the secretary of state for education highlighting ‘serious weaknesses’ in academy chains. How the government can plough ahead in light of his evidence beggars belief. We want to see robust accountability and oversight of all schools, regardless of type.”

Kevin Courtney, deputy general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, also criticised the plan. “The fig leaf of parental choice, school autonomy and raising standards has finally been dropped and the government’s real agenda has been laid bare: all schools to be removed from the support of their local authority and schools instead to be run by remote academy trusts, unaccountable to parents, staff or local communities.”

Mr Osborne said: “It is simply unacceptable that Britain continues to sit too low down the global league tables for education. So I’m going to get on with finishing the job we started five years ago, to drive up standards and set schools free from the shackles of local bureaucracy.”