All or nothing?

MikeWatson.jpgMike Watson on why, despite the apparent u-turn, Ministers remain intent on forcing schools to become academies

The bizarrely-named ‘Education for All’ Bill continues the Conservative’s obsession with forcing good and outstanding schools to become academies against their wishes.

Despite being forced to make a tactical – rather than strategical – shift, the government’s plans still fail to address the serious problems currently facing schools. There is simply no evidence that academy status automatically raises school performance; with much of it in fact pointing in the opposite direction. Yet Ministers are ploughing on regardless.

It has been widely reported that they have retreated from the mass-academisation programme in the face of widespread and vociferous opposition, including from within their own party. But many in the education sector have not been fooled by this apparent u-turn.

The notes that accompanied the announcement of the Bill said the government will: “Convert schools to academies in the worst performing local authorities and those that can no longer viably support their remaining schools, so that a new system led by good and outstanding schools can take their place”.

The fact is that there’s already a system led by good and outstanding schools – it’s called the local authority system. Of course, there is always room for improvement. Just as there is in the academy and free school sectors. And there is absolutely no basis for binning the entire local authority sector in favour of the other two so beloved by the two current education ministers in the Lords.

This week I visited Tollgate Primary School in east London. A teaching school, in February it was one of three across the whole of England designated by the head of Ofsted as having achieved particular success in supporting significant improvement in other schools.

It was already ‘outstanding’ and in 2013 its Executive Head took on the same role in respect of nearby Cleves Primary, which had a ‘requires improvement’ rating. Within just 18 months, Cleves joined Tollgate in being judged ‘outstanding’ in all areas. To achieve that in 18 months is very rare, and it was made possible by the schools working jointly within a federation. But the government has now effectively outlawed any new federations of maintained schools and Tollgate is now considering becoming an academy. It it doesn’t, it will be unable to progress from its current position as a teaching school. A clear example of the covert pressure applied to outstanding maintained schools to make them bend to the will of ministers. We can expect more underhand tactics when the Bill is rolled out. 

We don’t yet know how the Education Department will define ‘viability’ or a ‘minimum performance threshold’ for local authorities. But the independent think tank CentreForum has concluded that as many as 122 of the 152 local authorities responsible for maintained schools will be deemed unviable. Forcibly converting what amounts to 12,000 schools to academy status would see around 85% of all schools becoming academies which, along with those converting voluntarily, would render most remaining local authority ones unviable.

The government are therefore, within touching distance of their cherished aim for all schools to become academies. So hey presto, using smoke and mirrors, the apparent pulling back from mass-academisation is not what it seems.

The mass-conversion of schools is not a good use of public money, particularly at a time of huge funding pressures. Labour is not anti-academy, recognising that many have proved very successful in raising standards. But by exposing the real intent of this Bill, Labour Peers will seek to ensure the outstanding contribution of so many local authorities is recognised by ministers. Something they have resolutely – and shamefully – refused to do so far.

Lord Mike Watson of Invergowrie is Shadow Education Minister in the House of Lords

Published 19th May 2016

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