Doing the rounds at party conference fringes this year, I made the following points: DfE now has a live Green Paper, a White Paper to respond to, the next stage of national funding formula to legislate for, a HE bill going through the Commons, an Education for All bill in the autumn, another schools bill next year implementing the Green Paper, a children’s social care bill already underway, and possibly a skills bill to come.
And that daunting list is just on the parliamentary side. So let's not forget the delivery challenges: implementing 30 hours childcare; introducing the apprenticeships levy and getting 3 million apprenticeships underway; making big changes to primary assessment; dealing with coasting and failing schools; finishing off the Area Review process in further education, and doing something – anything! – on teacher supply.
All of that needs to be done in a department that has fewer staff in the old DfE bit than it had six months ago (but with total numbers now swollen by a transfer of responsibilities from BIS), and while finding space in a parliamentary and political agenda dominated by Brexit.
Justine Greening is known as a Secretary of State who is a good prioritiser. And so it’s no real surprise that she has taken a look at all the items on her to-do list, and decided to drop the Education for All bill. The key plank of it – Nicky Morgan’s proposal to compel all schools to become Academies by 2022 – has been reversed already. And the sections of it which are still needed, such as laying the groundwork for the implementation of the funding formula, can be swept up in the "Schools that work for all" bill which is due to be introduced next year.
But what is also being briefed today is that the so-called "compromise position" on academisation, and which was also in the White Paper – granting the secretary of state power to direct mass Academy conversion in local areas of underperformance – is also being dropped. And I think that's a real mistake.
On current trends – driven by financial pressures, RSC chivvying, and existing powers to broker sponsorship for failing and coasting schools – I estimate that perhaps 80 per cent of secondary schools and around 25 to 30 per cent of primary schools are likely to become academies by the end of the Parliament anyway.
In many local authorities, this risks a tipping point being reached, where the remaining maintained schools (overwhelmingly primaries) cannot be effectively supported by that council – not because of the numbers of schools having left, but because of the number of pupils who have, taking their per pupil funding with them, coupled with the way in which local authority school improvement and central services budgets rely on significant cross subsidy from secondary schools to primaries. In other words, even councils which are currently performing well, and are hostile to universal academisation (hello Hampshire), offer no guarantees of protection from what could happen when a critical mass of their schools renounce their maintained status and the rest suddenly become unsustainable, either financially or educationally (and the two are closely related). This could happen very swiftly. It is by no means inconceivable that we could see a very rapid decline – within one school year – in some areas.
If that begins to happen, then at present only two options are available as a remedy. When – and only when – the schools’ results fall below the floor or they fail an Ofsted, there are existing powers to force them into sponsored academy status. Or a Regional Schools Commissioner and the LA would have to sense something coming and bust a gut to pre-emptively and voluntarily broker an arrangement not just for one or two or three schools at risk but potentially dozens – at speed, and cutting through a number of obstacles to do so. Neither of these strikes me as ideal from the DfE's point of view, or, more importantly, schools'.
A reserve power, as proposed in the White Paper – that in cases of rapid and geographically concentrated decline in standards or finances, allows the secretary of state to mandate large scale action to prevent mass failure – is a vital tool. Just like government’s power over banks in cases of systemic failure, you never want it to be used. But if it doesn't exist, I worry desperately that there may come a time when we need it, and don't have it.