The recent education and adoption bill is done and dusted – without much fanfare, as it turned out.
For those who dozed off during its passage through parliament, provisions included toughening up forced academy conversion and moving power from local authorities to the Department for Education and its lieutenants, the regional schools commissioners. Before the bill had even reached royal assent, rumours began to circulate that new legislation was in the pipeline that would academise every school in England by 2020.
It must be frustrating for ministers that this goal hasn’t been achieved. After almost six years of coercion, financial inducements and at times outrageous misrepresentation of the superiority of “independent” state schools, there are still only about 5,500 academies and free schools. That is admittedly over 5,000 more than in 2010 but it leaves around 16,000 schools in the maintained sector.
Thus far ministers appear to be keen to stress that the remainder will be “helped” or “given the opportunity” to change status. In the Lords before Christmas junior schools minister Lord Nash said this was not about “making every school an academy overnight at the stroke of a pen”.
The caution is probably sensible. Moving schools from the maintained sector to a contractual relationship with the secretary of state has proved costly and cumbersome, often involving intensive legal negotiations over land and assets. In its first two years the academy budget overspent by £1bn.
Local councils have had to write off millions of pounds of their departing schools’ debts, which could become even more contentious if you consider the scale of looming budget deficits. Some authorities have reportedly refused to shoulder this burden and are considering charging schools for the legal costs of conversion.
Meanwhile, accountability for academies is a muddle, as the recent education select committee report showed. Academy funding agreements have developed in a similarly haphazard way, depending on who was in power at the time, with variation between the obligations placed on different schools, making it hard to apply government policy consistently.
A recent Institute for Public Policy Research report into the academy legal framework discovered some governors even found their schools unwittingly stripped of independent status when they moved into chains where the trust, rather than the individual school, holds the contract with the DfE.
As the IPPR points out, this may not matter if the chain is doing a good job. But what if it is not? Schools are tied into chains without the freedom to leave of their own accord. Even the process of being “released” by the government is pricey. It was recently revealed that moving 16 underperforming academies to different sponsors cost the taxpayer £3m. Setting up thousands more schools in this way is neither efficient nor liberating. So what is the point?
It can’t be about standards. Even though ministers find this hard to admit, the evidence from analysis of exam results and Ofsted reports is clear: academy status is not a magic bullet for school improvement. From the secretary of state’s point of view, 100% academisation is actually risky. With no local authority to blame, the buck will stop with her.
If the idea is to kill off the local authority once and for all, or rather leave councils with a few responsibilities such as admissions, special needs and safeguarding, that could be done by removing some local authority duties and setting up a new middle tier. Even Labour had a plan for this before the election.
If the purpose is to create a more coherent, less fragmented system – and this seems to me the most convincing argument – it would be possible to do what the IPPR report proposes and override all the individual funding agreements with legislation that puts every school on a broadly similar footing.
But then the overhyped academy “freedoms” would be irrelevant, and we would be left with something more like the original Tory grant-maintained schools, though in a system that would make for-profit companies easier to introduce, if that is the hidden objective.
Whatever the real reason, making this the centrepiece of government plans would seem extraordinary. Schools are battling with funding cuts, teacher shortages, overcrowded classrooms and onerous changes to assessment and accountability. Whether you look at exam results, widening GCSE gaps, the issue of diversity at Oxbridge or the continuing supremacy of private school pupils in the arts and professions, the Gove/Morgan social justice mission looks flimsier by the day.
Yet the next three years could be dominated once again by structural changes with no obvious long-term purpose, other than the correction of problems left over by earlier changes that were ill conceived from the start. Disappointing to say the least, but not entirely surprising.
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