There is an art to U-turns. Make them too late and, like the poll tax, they can finish your career. Make them too early and you can lose a cherished policy to a superficial opposition campaign.
The most effective U-turns deal with the most significant concerns around a policy – reducing the political noise to a manageable level but leaving the essence of the change intact.
Take, for example, Michael Gove’s U-turn on English Baccalaureate Certificates in 2013. These were to be the harder replacement for GCSEs in core subjects. When the proposal was announced, there was an outcry: teachers flooded social media with concerns; august institutions signed letters to newspapers; the select committee investigated. The internal and external criticism reached a point where a U-turn became inevitable. So the EBC name was dropped, as was the idea of a single exam board to deliver the new qualifications.
However, the essence of the policy remained. GCSEs were still reformed, with tougher syllabuses and a new grading system. Losing the rebranding and the single exam board almost certainly improved the policy (if you’re wondering about the problem with a single exam board, just look at what’s happened with Sats), but the ministerial end goal remained intact and the controversy died down.
It’s too early to tell whether the recent academies U-turn is similarly skilful or more of a straightforward reversal. The government’s plan of getting all schools to convert, forcibly if necessary, by 2022 is no longer going to happen. But the essence of the policy was to bring about full academisation over time – and it’s not clear whether this is still likely.
Under the new plans, the Department for Education will be able to convert all schools in an area to academy status if the local authority “can no longer viably support its remaining schools because a critical mass…has converted” or if it “consistently fails to meet a minimum performance threshold”. Since neither viability nor underperformance are defined as yet, it’s difficult to tell how many good and outstanding schools will find themselves academised because of the local authority they’re in.
The thinktank CentreForum has estimated that if viability is set at 50 per cent of pupils in a local authority being in maintained schools, and underperformance as below-average grades across the area, then an extra 12,000 schools would be converted. Which would leave only 3,000 maintained schools.
It’s unlikely, though, that the DfE will be that aggressive in its definitions. Indeed, it may need to leave them fairly vague, at least initially, to avoid perverse incentives. For instance, if there were a rigid rule that 50 per cent of pupils in academies would equal an “unviable” situation, then imagine the pressure on schools still considering converting when the proportion reached 49 per cent. They would control the fate of every maintained school in their area.
Likewise, if underperformance were given a rigid definition, then a couple of high-performing schools choosing to convert could push the whole authority below the line.
It seems more probable that the DfE will use definitions that allow some discretion. It may also rely on local authorities voluntarily relinquishing their role on the grounds of viability, given the cut in local government funding that was announced as part of the spending review. Even before the White Paper came out there were several authorities considering their own version of wholesale academisation.
We will know more when draft legislation is published later this year. In the meantime, schools should still be thinking about the best option for them in an all-academy authority.
Sam Freedman is executive director of programmes at Teach First and a former government policy adviser