New Governments like to do a lot. They have manifestos to deliver on and ministers with ideas and ambitions.
The education White Paper exemplified this with its unapologetic ambition to improve the school system through a range of interventions, including, most controversially, forced academisation of all schools.
These plans met with significant resistance, not least from some of the government’s own backbenchers. This led to a significant U-turn, which will mean that “good” and “outstanding” schools in many areas will be permitted to remain under local authority control.
But, leaving aside the politics, does the approach of mass academisation make sense?
The academy programme started in earnest under the government of Tony Blair. I vividly recall Blair’s then policy adviser – Andrew, now Lord, Adonis – stopping me in the street in about 2002. He wanted to know whether the Liberal Democrats could be more critical of the government on education standards. Understandably, I looked a little baffled: “You are the government. We are in opposition. You want us to be more critical?” I asked.
“Yes” Adonis said. “We have far too many really weak schools, particularly in poor areas, failing children from disadvantaged backgrounds. But there is too little momentum for reform. The Labour councils in the poor areas often just blame it all on poverty and say their schools are doing as well as they can.
“The Conservatives seem more interested in grammar schools and the leafy shire areas. Tony Blair and I want to shake things up, and turn around the worst schools, but we need more political attention to the problem.”
Turning schools around
Labour moved ahead with “academisation” of some of the weakest English schools – often against the wishes of unambitious local authorities. Some of the “new” schools were turned around quickly. Some took much longer to succeed – after all, most were very low-performing schools.
One by one, new schools were established, often with new leadership and governance. Academies were given some enhanced freedoms – for example, over the curriculum. And some received more money (from sponsors and from a government that was eager to turn them around).
Of course, there was a lot of opposition – from local authorities, national politicians, and the trade unions. What impact the new academies were making was hotly disputed, and even where results were improving, the critics claimed that this was all down to “selection” of more middle-class pupils.
It was some years before robust and independent data became available on sponsored academy performance, from academics such as Professor Stephen Machin. This seemed to show that on average there was a positive impact on pupil attainment – supporting the position taken by reformers in all three major political parties.
There had been in government, however, a certain casualness about identifying why sponsored academies might be doing better than their predecessor schools. Was it the new leadership and governance? Was it the chance to clear out underperforming teachers and “start again”? Was it funding? Curricular freedoms? Was it that more money was devolved from local authorities to schools, rather than being spent “wastefully” at the centre? The truth was that there was little clear evidence.
Governments of both parties seemed somewhat unclear as to what the real drivers of improvement were. “All these things” was their general answer. Gordon Brown, under pressure to show his reforming zeal, pressed on with an expansion of Blair’s academy programme. Under the coalition’s education secretary, Michael Gove, it wasn’t just poorerperforming schools but higher-performing schools that could “convert”.
At this time, there was certainly a focus on “more”, and an assumption that more academies must inevitably mean better results.
But some serious questions also started to be raised about the programme. If new leadership and governance were crucial to success, would “converter academies” with the same leadership really make much difference? If curricular freedom was a driver of improvement, why not just expand this in all schools?
If devolving more money to schools was important for better results, how come some of the best academy chains were also developing their own in-house capabilities for school support and oversight – their central services? If “academisation” was a magic bullet, why were some academies and chains doing so badly? Were they expanding too quickly, or failing to concentrate expertise in geographically manageable areas?
If some academies were failing, what was the solution? Did we have enough great sponsors for all schools? And could the Department for Education really maintain oversight over thousands of academies from London?
Tough on poor performance
During the last Parliament, it was increasingly clear that there were a large number of academies and many academy chains that were performing badly. Indeed, around one-third of open academies were performing in ways that caused the DfE to put them in a category of concern. What could be done about this? And should Ofsted be allowed or required to inspect academy chains?
Towards the end of the last Parliament, the DfE started to seriously grapple with these issues. Regional schools commissioners were appointed to devolve oversight from Whitehall. The academies minister, Lord Nash, got a lot tougher on failing academy chains – even removing some schools from them. There was more focus on developing additional sponsor capacity. And then in March 2015, the DfE published the first tables allowing the performance of different academy chains and local authorities to be compared.
It has become increasingly difficult to defend the logic of a “two-tier” school system, and this now looks ripe for reform. Arguably, local authorities should focus less on school improvement and more on acting as a guardian of the interests of parents and pupils – with respect to school places, fair admissions and good-quality local schools.
But there has been a sense over the past 10 years that policy detail has lagged behind ideological conviction. Creating a coherent schools system with proper accountability, oversight and devolution of powers requires thinking through key questions about reform up front and not later when things go wrong.
As the DfE pushes ahead with academisation, it is essential that these key structural issues are addressed and thought through up front – and not in response to failures in the programme in five years’ time.
David Laws was Lib Dem schools minister under the coalition government and is now executive chairman of education thinktank CentreForum, which will be seeking to provide impartial evidence to inform this debate