Academy freedoms mooted for all

29th May 2009 at 01:00
Minister reveals that whole state sector may be given taste of flagship programme

Union accuses Labour of `shooting the Tory fox'

The government is considering giving all schools in the state sector the freedoms enjoyed by academies, The TES has learnt.

When academies first came into being, they were allowed to step away from local authority control and tear up the national agreement on pay and conditions.

This week's Government shift, contained in a response to a House of Lords committee report by schools minister Jim Knight, marks a significant move away from previous education policy under Gordon Brown. Until now he has been widely associated with backing a watering down of the freedoms associated with the academies programme.

The NUT described the shift - which brings Labour closer to Conservative pledges - as the Government "shooting the Tory fox" ahead of next month's white paper on 21st-century schools.

The Conservatives have promised to expand the academies programme considerably, spending around pound;4.5 billion on building hundreds more of the schools.

Michael Gove, shadow schools secretary, announced last month at the Conservative spring forum that, if his party were to gain power at the next election, thousands of primary academies would be created.

Earlier this year, however, academy heads and sponsors complained that their freedoms were being watered down as central government tightened its control.

But in a response to a Lords committee report released last week, Jim Knight, schools minister, said the Government was looking into giving every school in the country some of the freedoms afforded to academies.

The merits of statutory instruments committee recommended that the Department for Children, Schools and Families should consider extending the "light touch regulatory framework for academies" to "all maintained schools".

In a written response, Mr Knight said the Government was looking into "specific areas" of academies policy as part of an "evaluation strategy" that could be used to compare how it "regulates maintained schools and academies".

He added: "We must look harder at how we can rationalise the impact of statutory duties, correspondence and guidance that schools receive, in order to reduce the burdens and allow teachers and school leaders greater freedom to innovate.

"In the longer term, we may want to take a view about whether it would be possible or desirable to replicate certain aspects of the academies model more widely."

Mr Knight's response echoes a speech given by Gordon Brown earlier this month, in which he said the white paper was intended to "reduce the burden on schools" and free them up to "push forward the frontier of innovation".

But the main unions have greeted with scepticism the prospect of extending academies' freedoms to all schools. The NUT said such freedoms should be focused in the classroom and the curriculum, rather than on governance and guidance.

John Bangs, head of education for the union, said: "The whole concept of greater freedoms, as opposed to central control, is a barren one. It is what works at a school level and at a local authority level that's important.

"Genuine freedoms are those that are directed at the teaching profession, particularly when it comes to the curriculum. Freedoms should be greater when it comes to teaching and learning, not when it comes to central government control."

The NAHT heads' union said the jury was still out on academies, and questioned whether they were a suitable model for all schools.

Mick Brookes, the union's general secretary, said: "We're not convinced by the academies concept, and we feel that there are still lessons to be learnt when it comes to academies and other PFI (private finance initiative) school projects."

He added: "There should be less focus on structures and more on maintaining and raising standards."

A lighter touch

  • From September, all regulations will have a start date of September 1, except in very exceptional circumstances, to stop schools being handed guidance midway through a term
  • Schools will receive at least one full term's notice between the enshrining of a new requirement and its implementation, to give them time to prepare
  • All new regulations will be subject to post-implementation reviews to evaluate their impact on schools.


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