ON 6 MAY, the Secretary of State for Education, Nicky Morgan, announced that the Government was no longer pursuing legislative compulsion to require that all schools become academies by 2020-22. The arguments against the policy had been well made: that there was an obvious contradiction between talk of autonomy and schools' being “forced to be free”; that the evidence base that academisation was the only and necessary route to high-performing schools was very weak; and that the required quality, performance track record, and capacity in multi-academy trusts could not simply be willed into being over a relatively short period. Critically, too many backbench Conservative MPs were unconvinced.
At the same time, Ms Morgan made clear that full academisation was still the Government’s aim. It is no longer being pursued through the front door of legislation, but will we still see it implemented nevertheless?
The Government has levers to use to enact academisation. The Education and Adoption Act requires schools that are judged "inadequate" by OFSTED to convert, and introduces the category of “coasting schools” that are likely to come under pressure to do so from regional schools commissioners. The “Education for All” Bill announced in the Queen’s Speech would require full academisation when local-authority schools are under-performing, or where the maintained sector has shrunk to such a degree that the local authority no longer has the capacity to act effectively.
In addition, it is proposed that the bulk of school funding will be nationalised, effectively ending the role of funding forums, which bring together local authorities and schools in allocating finance. And local authorities will be expected to “step back” from school-improvement activity by the end of the next academic year (that is, by summer 2017), with a substantial cut to the education services grant to encourage their withdrawal from the field. To the extent that policy drives a wedge between schools and local authorities, it can act as an incentive to consider academy status.
Yet, critically, after the policy reversal, schools still have a choice. There are many schools not caught in “coasting” and “inadequate” categories; the large swaths of “good” or “outstanding” primary and special schools, as well as a smaller number of maintained secondary schools, which have so far not felt a strong wish or pressure to convert. Clearly they will recognise that the world around them continues to change, and will not want to be left behind by the changes. But where their current status works well for them, and where their key relationships, with the local authority among others, are good, they will not rush to change it.
THE Government’s vision for education still encompasses a significant role for local authorities. This includes coordinating admissions and ensuring that there is a good supply of school places; in a time of rapidly rising school rolls, this will continue to be a significant task. It also incorporates support for vulnerable pupils, including those with special educational needs, and a somewhat nebulous role as “champions for all parents and families”.
Yet other Government policies undermine that role. The changes to school funding potentially reduce schools’ interest in support for high-needs pupils, while leaving much of the financial pressure associated with growing need with the local authority. A new centrally allocated funding stream for local-authority education functions may be an adequate substitute for the current financing system, but quite possibly will not.
As for the requirement that local authorities remove themselves from school improvement, this (not for the first time) flies in the face of the evidence of rapidly rising standards in maintained primary schools. It was a policy that made little sense when accompanying a forced march to full academisation, and makes even less in its absence.
We are moving towards a more school-based system, with a continuing but changed place for local authorities. That is neither new — we have been heading in that direction for some 30 years — nor illogical. But it is in no one’s interests, and certainly not those of schools, for the functions that remain with local authorities to be underfunded or curtailed for ideological reasons.
The Government has shown itself willing to rethink some aspects of its programme. It needs to do some more rethinking.
Roger Gough is a cabinet member for education on Kent County Council