It used to be said that the best way for a government to ‘bury bad news’ was to announce it when the electorate was distracted by other events. So perhaps it was just coincidence that Nicky Morgan announced on the day of the London mayoral and local government elections that HMG was ditching its controversial plans to require all schools, good or bad, to become academies by 2022. Indeed, we have all read and heard the chorus of disquiet and derision since they were somewhat strangely announced in the recent Budget by George Osborne, a man not previously known for his educational expertise. We were all made aware by teachers and heads that they were ‘bemused’ by the idea of forcing change on high-performing schools. "If it ain't broke, why fix it?" they seemed to be saying. But it was when fury exploded from the usually loyal Conservative MPs and councillors, that the education secretary began to look very uncomfortable. With the EU referendum on the horizon, perhaps the Prime Minister felt that he had enough to deal with.
Up until last Thursday, ministers had argued that the new academy landscape would provide a high level of autonomy to schools and help drive up standards through greater innovation and competition in the system – whatever that means. As we know, currently all schools can choose to convert to academy status, but those deemed to be struggling or failing to improve sufficiently can be forced to convert. That will still remain the case under these new plans. As Nicky Morgan said in her statement: “By focusing our efforts on those schools most at risk of failing young people, and encouraging ‘good’ and ‘outstanding’ schools to seize the opportunities of conversion, we will ensure the continued growth of the academy programme, empowering frontline heads and school leads, and transforming even more children’s education”.
However, the government also said it would push forward with compelling academy conversions in two new areas:
•Where it is clear that the local authority can no longer viably support its remaining schools because too many schools have already become academies.
•Where the local education authority consistently fails to meet a minimum performance threshold across its schools.
Of course, with all of these ‘broad brush’ statements, the devil is in the detail, and we all await further clarification of ‘how failing is failing’, as many of our schools have had – and continue to have - excellent service from their local authorities.
The government also announced a package of measures to protect small rural schools including extra financial support and a requirement that any closure would have to be agreed by the local authority and the regional schools commissioner. Not an area we are especially concerned with, but important to note, nevertheless.
There can be little doubt in my mind that the idea of schools banding together, in multi academy trusts or otherwise, can only be to the good. We are living through an era of increasing financial difficulties for our schools, struggles to find enough – and good enough – staff and leaders and failing to take advantage of the benefits of working together will only weaken us all in the long run. And it is no good the larger schools claiming that it will only affect one-form entry primary schools. We are all in this together, as someone once said. There are still legitimate concerns of course. As governing boards bite the dust, so too will any parent governors, as academies don’t need to be accountable to the community in which they function. Now our community already has experience of academies, as some have already converted and all our free schools function as academies and I have not heard any complaints from aggrieved and disenfranchised parents. However, as all academies are ‘free’ from the constraints of the National Curriculum - except of course that they all have to sit pupils for SATs, GCSE and A levels (not iGCSE’s) – I wonder what will now be the fate of baseline testing, or any other testing?
And what, you might also ask, about the major consultation on completely revising the way schools are to be funded, launched a month back? If implemented, and there must be a doubt it will be, it will come into force just a couple of years before the whole system has to be totally changed.
So what, in the end, will it mean for all our schools and our community? I think that we will still be moving towards ‘ever closer union’ through MATs, although we now have the breathing space to get it right, or as right as we possibly can. And for that alone, we should give thanks for the opportunity that the London Mayoral elections offered Nicky Morgan.
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