Mike Watson on the multiple problems emerging with the government’s plans for forced academisation
A Conservative Education Secretary receiving a less than welcome reception at a teachers’ union conference is barely newsworthy. But when the Minister is heckled and mocked, and the audience is the National Association of Head Teachers, the government are facing unprecedented difficulties from the sector.
The White Paper outlining plans to force every state-funded school in England to become an academy by 2022 has met outright opposition from many quarters. What has thrown the plans into doubt however, is the fact that prominent among those expressing anger are Tory MPs and Tory-run local authorities.
Demonstrating the extent to which ideology rather than education policy is driving these plans, the Prime Minister has stated his intent that “local councils running schools will become a thing of the past”. Unaware perhaps that local government has not controlled schools since 1988.
Schools today face huge challenges from falling budgets, teacher shortages, rising class sizes and chaos in exams and assessment. So the academy plans are a costly (around £1bn, for which there is no designated funding), top-down reorganisation of the system that will remove even more money, time and effort from where the focus should be.
There is no evidence to support the notion that academies overall perform better than local authority schools, when the great majority of the latter are rated good or better. So what problem are Nicky Morgan and David Cameron trying to fix? The White Paper promotes academy chains as the preferred model. Yet many are performing badly, with the performance of seven leading chains savaged recently by Ofsted head Michael Wilshaw. In addition, too many examples exist of financial mismanagement verging on corruption in chains, and the Education Funding Agency is widely recognised as not being up to the job of supervising the current number of academies.
The government claims academisation devolves power to the ‘front line’ – something of a myth. Schools in academy chains actually lose most of their autonomy because the chain controls their premises, budget, staffing and curriculum. Chains therefore, have far more power over schools than local authorities do.
The White Paper makes it clear that academies will be controlled more closely by government in future. The Education Department plans to change academy contracts to grab more power to tell schools what to do. It will control the curriculum by imposing ever more tests on pupils; and will be able to move schools between chains without the schools having any say. A recipe for more confusion and instability.
Parents and local communities will have no say in how their schools are run, with no governing body of their own. Decisions will be taken by remote trusts and Ministers, often in secret and with no supporting evidence published. Clearly stung by the outcry at parents being excluded, the Schools Ministers in the Lords, Lord Nash rushed out a commitment to all schools being required to have a parents’ council. These will be little more than talking shops and it’s clear the trumpeted freedom for schools to manage their own affairs has quickly hit the buffers.
Academies involve more bureaucracy, not less. Every school has an individual legal contract with the department and has to comply with both charity and company law, with no back office support from councils. Academies will still be able to employ people with no teacher training or qualifications, and the system is designed to undermine the position of trade unions in schools and to end national agreements on pay and conditions for staff.
We await the Queen’s Speech to learn whether the widespread opposition to these proposals has given the government pause for thought. On balance, it’s likely they will plough on regardless, setting the scene for a vigorously-contested passage through both Houses of Parliament.
Lord Mike Watson of Invergowrie is Shadow Education Minister in the House of Lords
Published 3rd May 2016