Grappling with attempts to reform English education’s academies “system” sometimes feels a bit like trying to make sense of the Brexit negotiations.
(I.e., they’re unfathomably complicated, riven with vested interests, and almost no one with any sense has the time or inclination to even feign interest.)
Public weariness and political exhaustion notwithstanding, the academies system (or multi-academy system) finds itself, like the UK’s talks with Michel Barnier, at a crucial moment.
The naysayers are gaining ground and, as I’ve written before, advocates of academisation find themselves with very limited political cover, despite many running high-performing groups of schools. Off-rolling, dodgy related-party transactions and less-than-transparent governance have all tarnished their reputation.
And here there’s another parallel with Brexit: one key area of intrigue over academisation is Labour’s position. As with the EU negotiations, it is clear as mud.
As I wrote at the time, shadow education secretary Angela Rayner walked a fine line in her speech to Labour Party conference last month, delivering soundbites that meant whatever the listener wanted to hear.
In the key passage, she spoke of “no new academies” and how Labour would “use our time in government to bring all publicly funded schools back into the mainstream public sector, with a common rulebook and under local democratic control”.
The delegates in the conference hall jumped to the conclusion that she was planning to return all academies to local authority oversight – and it is not without irony that the both PM Theresa May and education secretary Damian Hinds also think that’s what she meant.
Councils could get power to close academies
However, it would seem that Rayner and her team might be planning something else altogether more subtle and, perhaps, more interesting.
Instead of a straight reversal of the process of academisation (which was, ultimately, started under New Labour), it looks likely Labour might instead close the newly-neutered regional schools commissioners and give their powers to local authorities. As such, local (democratically elected) councils would be able to rebroker or close failing academies, but not run them.
Local authorities would handle admissions, SEND and places provision (much in the style of the so-called “Hoodinerney Model”, proposed by Matt Hood, director of the Institute for Teaching, and Laura McInerney, chief executive of Teacher Tapp).
Councils would be able to commission new Co-Op Trust schools, which have all the powers and freedoms of academies but have a brand and governance structure more palatable to the Left (another neat policy slight-of-hand in Rayner’s conference speech).
So far, so simple.
There are many outstanding questions, of course. One being the conflict of interest that would exist within the newly empowered LAs, which would be simultaneously overseeing maintained schools and also in charge of closing failing schools and rebrokering academies.
The other is how academy bosses would respond. On the face of it, they shouldn’t be too horrified – in many ways the idea of local councils taking over RSC powers makes sense of a very messy system – but there are those that worry that such a move would represent the thin end of the wedge.
One veteran of the academies movement put it like this: “The issue will be governance. Loads of reformers can get on board with some RSCs' powers being shifted.
“But here’s the $64k question: does the local authority get a seat, even a minority, on an academy board? That would be my red line.”
And even that sounds a bit like a “red line” so beloved of one of the Brexit headbangers, too.
Ed Dorrell is head of content at Tes