I’m no plumber, nor am I a professional stunt driver, but I do know the difference between a U-turn and a U-bend.
Today Nicola Morgan announced that no longer would she be seeking to bring in legislation to force all schools to be or on the road to being an academy by 2020/22.
Predictably the twittersphere erupted with joy at this apparent U-turn. Except it is no such thing. The objective of full academisation remains. It will be achieved in other ways.
The press release making the announcement has some disturbing detail which people need to be aware of, especially as it shows this is by no means a U-turn.
Looking at the press release in more detail exposes the concession that’s really an admission that it was never going to succeed in the first place.
…the government is committed to every school becoming an academy. This system will allow us to tackle underperformance far more swiftly than in a local-authority-maintained system where many schools have been allowed to languish in failure for years.
So no change here from their direction of travel and their mistaken belief that academisation achieves improvements in schools faster than leaving them in LA hands, a claim that has been refuted time and again.
Since launching our proposals in the education white paper, the government has listened to feedback from MPs, teachers, school leaders and parents.
It is clear from those conversations that the impact academies have in transforming young people’s life chances is widely accepted and that more and more schools are keen to embrace academy status.
I don’t know about you, but either this is a sign of delusion or bad hearing. Where is the evidence to support these claims? All the feedback I’ve seen and read about is negative towards forced academisation, including many, many Conservative LAs and MPs.
The ‘listened to feedback’ is of course the important phrase. It’s Nicky Morgan’s hopeful ‘get out of jail free’ card. It’s not a U-Turn but, a listening government that cares about what the experts think and is willing to change things.
And now we come to the sting in the tail – the devil in the detail or whatever you wish to call it.
In addition, the government will bring forward legislation which will trigger conversion of all schools within a local authority in 2 specific circumstances:
- firstly, where it is clear that the local authority can no longer viably support its remaining schools because a critical mass of schools in that area has converted. Under this mechanism a local authority will also be able to request the Department for Education converts all of its remaining schools
- secondly, where the local authority consistently fails to meet a minimum performance threshold across its schools, demonstrating an inability to bring about meaningful school improvement
These measures will target those schools where the need to move to academy status is most pressing. For other high-performing schools in strong local authorities the choice of whether to convert will remain the decision of the individual schools and governing bodies in question.
And this is how they think they can achieve the full academisation without the need for legislation.
Having starved LAs of funding and making them pay for schools that wish to convert or absorb the debt of any school in deficit it forces to be an academy, it’s clear that many LAs will have a real problem. It’s likely that the leafy Conservative LAs will be far less affected by this than many other LAs struggling in areas of high deprivation etc. Cheekily they say that they will grant an LAs request for remaining schools to convert – and you can bet that they will shout out loud that they weren’t ‘forcing’ it was a ‘free (Hobson’s)’ choice.
The performance threshold will also be a smoke screen. Having seduced as many high performing schools as possible to convert – often with the lure of cash, what’s left is bound to be ‘underperforming’ so the system is gamed towards LAs ultimately losing their schools.
No doubt there will also be the spectre of forced academisation for schools that don’t meet the DfEs ‘targets’ (even though they can change a target to an aspiration on a whim and duck any requirement to meet it – I give you the National Broadband target and, today, the target for forced academisation becoming an ‘aspiration’).
Recall that GCSEs, and National Tests at KS2 have, by the DfE’s own admission become much harder, more rigorous. It’s likely that pass rates will fall. After all that’s what they wanted when they took office. Pass rates were too high, they said, artificially high as exams were dumbed down. This being the case, finding ‘failing’ schools will become much easier – especially, I suspect in the primary sector where the KS2 tests seem to me to be ridiculous for 11 year olds.
So why a U-bend and not a U-turn? It’s all about the direction of travel. In a U-Turn the direction of travel is reversed. In a U-bend the direction of travel of the water detours, but ultimately still it goes down the drain. It seems the DfE is willing to flush our education system down the drain in an effort to fulfil their education ideology – regardless of the evidence and even the protestations of their own more moderate MPs and supporters.
One thing is sure. This is a huge climb down and humiliation for the Secretary of State who only two weeks ago said there is “no reverse gear” on the government’s plan to turn all schools in England into academies by 2020 well, she found the reverse gear on the legislation bus, but the academy car is still going in the same direction, no reverse gear there it seems.
By announcing that all schools will be expected to become academies, George Osborne has foretold the death of local authority involvement in education.
Born on December 18 1902, Local Education Authorities (LEAs) will likely have their life support switched off sometime in 2022, by which time all schools will be expected to be on course to becoming academies. The local authorities will leave behind a number of precious local services, their future somewhat uncertain.
Despite their long life, LEAs have not been universally popular, making a number of enemies: the late Margaret Thatcher and former education secretary Keith Joseph, to name but two. Between them they killed off the Inner LEA, but the behemoth that was the remainder of the local education authorities remained.
The death of local education authorities then seemed inevitable after they lost many of their powers of control over schools with the 1988 Education Reform Act. For many years since, their role has largely been one of scrutiny and support, but for some this will be very badly missed.
This time, the Conservatives intend to deliver a fatal blow. But there are five ways that schools and children will lose out from the demise of local authority control of education.
1. A local champion for vulnerable children
Local authorities must currently engage with parents and schools to ensure that the right provision for every child is available locally. Ensuring the specific needs of every child are met is hugely complex and even local authorities struggle to meet their responsibilities at times.
As education is fragmented, there will be concerns over how parents will be able to negotiate the minefield that is school admissions, with each academy or trust being its own admissions body.
Legally, local authorities have the responsibility to provide a school place for every child. If every school is an academy, local authorities or councils will have no power to require schools to expand their intake or take on any child. Already, LEAs are warning that finding school places for all is becoming “undeliverable”.
Currently, parents can take a local authority to a tribunal if they feel the needs of their child are not being met. It’s unclear how this will work if the local authority in effect ceases to exist.
2. A local vision for schools
With the demise of LEAs, many schools will be run by multi-academy trusts (MATs) – chains of academies run by the same sponsors. Many trusts operate a number of schools, sometimes in different local authority areas. Some may know more about the local community than others.
The only answer the Department for Education has for under-performing academies or trusts is the transfer of schools from one trust to another. This is likely to increase, alongside the incorporation of standalone academies into existing and new trusts.
The governance of academy chains has been questioned, most recently by the current head of schools inspectorate Ofsted, Michael Wilshaw, who highlighted several underperforming MATs.
Ultimately, it is likely to be the vision of the trust, not the community, that schools will adopt – and parents will have to live with it.
3. Local forum for school improvement
School improvement arises from the efforts of people, not structures. A structural change will not deliver long-term sustained improvement in itself.
Local authorities have provided a platform for a range of collaborations between heads, teachers, various schools and local and national services. Admittedly, some authorities are better at this than others, but the setting up of a free market competitive model for school governance where academy trusts actively compete rather than collaborate cannot be a good model for mutual improvement.
4. Loss of essential services to schools
Local authorities provide many services to schools, from the vetting of contracts and human resources management, to payroll services and delivering expertise in commissioning, tendering and procurement. They also provide many support services from school transport and peripatetic music teachers, to anti-bullying advice and educational psychology services.
With academies funded directly by central government, local authorities will lose much of their funding as a result of the push to academise. This may well put some of these services at risk or increase their cost. If they are large enough, some MATs may be able to replicate the cost savings of local authorities by clubbing together and contracting such services. But small rural schools who depend on services offered by the council may struggle to afford them.
5. Learning from the past
The Conservatives have learned from Labour’s failure in the 1960s to completely eradicate grammar schools. The process of ending selection was resisted by some, most notably Kent, and the law never changed to ban or force grammar schools to close – it just prevented the opening of new ones.
They also learned from their own failure in the 1980s and 90s to abolish local authorities and establish more independence for some schools under what was called the grant maintained programme. Following Labour’s landslide election victory in 1997, a new act was passed in 1998 that reversed the grant maintained status of schools.
Putting these laments for the demise of the LEA aside, the evidence that academies are the best model for school improvement is severely lacking, especially for the poorest students. Research suggests that underperforming schools actually improve much faster under local authority supervision.
What the future holds for local authorities and education is extremely uncertain. The devil will be in the detail of the government’s planned legislation.