THE Government is not to seek blanket powers to force all schools to become academies over the next six years, the Secretary of State for Education, Nicky Morgan, confirmed in a House of Commons statement on Monday.
The decision, widely hailed as a U-turn, followed forceful opposition from within Conservative ranks after some Tory backbenchers and local-government leaders joined critics from other parties, and from head teachers, in calling for a rethink.
Paul Carter, who chairs the predominantly Conservative County Councils Network, said that Mrs Morgan had rightly listened to critics. The change of heart had been vital for the preservation of small rural schools that were at the heart of their communities, he said. He welcomed a package of extra support for small rural schools, newly announced by Mrs Morgan.
A further promise that none will close without the consent of both local and national authorities will be limited to those that become academies.
Leading educators, however, see Mrs Morgan’s move as less a U-turn than a chicane on the road to an all-academy schools system by 2022. Her Commons speech, and the accompanying press statement, make it clear that the Government remains committed to the original vision of full academisation first announced in the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s Budget Speech in March, and fleshed out in the Education White Paper later that month.
Feedback from MPs, teachers, school leaders, and parents had made it clear that more and more schools were keen to embrace academy status, the statement said. “As a result of these conversations, the Government has decided, while reaffirming our continued determination to see all schools become academies in the next six years, that it is not necessary to bring about the blanket conversion of all schools to achieve this goal.”
The statement makes it clear, moreover, that ministers still intend to seek powers that allow them to force the academisation of failing and “coasting” schools, and all schools in weak local authorities.
None of the 13 authorities named as failing by the Chief Inspector of Schools, Michael Wilshaw, are Conservative-controlled. Twelve, all in the north, are Labour-controlled; Stoke-on-Trent, in the Midlands, has no overall control, but a majority of Labour councillors. Stoke has about a dozen C of E schools, the director of education for Lichfield diocese, Colin Hopkins, said: it would be important to scrutinise legislation enabling forced conversion.
Also at risk are a further ten authorities, where school-improvement plans have been criticised by OFSTED. Most of these are also Labour-led.
Dioceses are already coping with a range of administrative regimes through church schools that have become academies, and others that remain under the maintained system. Those that include one or more “weak” local authorities will face additional, complex problems handling conversion under revisions of existing legislation. They will see their workload increase further, a situation recognised by promises of extra government funding.
C of E legal advisers warn that emerging legislation will have to secure a statutory place for church schools. This, they say, should be on the face of the next Education Bill, a measure that the Government is understood to have promised church leaders.
The Church of England’s chief education officer, the Revd Nigel Genders, promised this week to work with the Government to aspire to the best possible educational provision. “Where academisation is the best way forward, the Church of England, as the largest sponsor of academies in England, is well placed, through its dioceses, to take an active role in the conversion process.”