The biggest change to the schools system in 50 years

1st January 2016 at 00:00
Ministers want to fast-track their plans to turn all state schools into academies – but union warns of ‘disaster’

Ministers are considering the publication of a White Paper outlining the biggest change to the structure of England’s schools system in half a century.

It is understood that the government is eager to formalise its plans to convert every state school in the country into an academy.

Critics have said that such a move could prove “disastrous” and even Conservative local authorities are expected to take a stand against what would be a wholesale removal of any remaining influence that councils have over local schools.

The Conservative leader of Hampshire County Council, Roy Perry, said that it would be “harder for [councils] to justify” spending money on providing additional school places if they have no say over their local schools.

But TES understands that ministers are clear enough about their intentions to feel able to skip the Green Paper consultative stage of the policy process. They are in discussions to publish a White Paper in the first few months of 2016, which would set out the plan to transform the schools system during the rest of the government’s term.

‘Fraught with difficulties’

Any push towards a fully academised system will be fraught with difficulties, however, particularly within the primary sector, which has so far tended not to opt for conversion. Latest DfE figures show that 15 per cent of primary schools are academies, compared with around 60 per cent of secondaries (see box, opposite).

Smaller primaries are usually more reliant on the support offered by local authorities than their larger secondary neighbours.

Russell Hobby, general secretary of the NAHT headteachers’ union, said that the practicalities of any move to complete academisation would make it very tough to achieve.

“Even if they could pass a law tomorrow that would turn every school into an academy, they cannot pass a law that would place every school in a high-performing academy trust,” Mr Hobby said.

“You can’t have every primary school as a standalone academy. That would be a disastrous situation. What they cannot allow is for some schools to be left stranded on their own.”

Cameron’s vision

But the desire for such radical change comes from the very top of the government. Prime minister David Cameron has repeatedly stated his aim for every school to become an academy, saying that he wants to see “local authorities running schools as a thing of the past”.

And his words are slowly being turned into action through policies being put in place by education secretary Nicky Morgan and chancellor George Osborne, which are likely to start taking effect this year.

Under the Education and Adoption Bill, which the government got through the House of Lords last month, Ms Morgan will have the power to convert every underperforming school into an academy by the summer.

All schools judged “inadequate” by Ofsted will be automatically converted into an academy under a new sponsor. It is expected that this will initially affect around 1,000 schools.

And any school that consistently falls under the government’s new “coasting” measure could also find itself heading for academy status, leading to the potential conversion of thousands more.

Mr Osborne used his spending review speech in late November to state that the government’s aim by 2020 was “to complete this schools revolution and help every secondary school become an academy”. He also revealed a plan to cut £600 million in education funding for local councils.

If local authorities’ influence over schools does disappear, the government has made an acknowledgement that some kind of “middle tier” will be needed to take its place. The new national schools commissioner, Sir David Carter, is likely to play a crucial role in setting out how this new system evolves in 2016 (see box, opposite).

But Cllr Perry, who also serves as chair of the Local Government Association’s children and young people board, said that it would be “sad” if schools had no connection with their democratically elected councils.

“It would be a great loss of democratic influence,” he said. “When local people have concerns about their school, they turn to their local councillor for help, and they would be surprised if they were told to talk to a provider based elsewhere.”

The senior Conservative told TES that local authorities were still expected to provide essential education funding but warned that this would be harder to defend if schools all became independent academies.

“Tell me why a local authority, which is strapped for cash, should be responsible for putting money into school places,” he said.

“When government says it wants to remove schools from the ‘shackles’ of local government, it makes it harder to justify spending that money.”

@RichardVaughan1

New commissioner faces a huge challenge

Sir David Carter’s appointment as national schools commissioner is the latest step up the educational ladder for the ambitious former headteacher.

In 2014, Sir David was chief executive of a small but growing cluster of around a dozen schools in the Bristol region. Fast-forward less than two years and he has, in effect, oversight of every school in the country.

The incoming commissioner will need to draw on all of his expertise in motivational speaking, witnessed first-hand by TES (bit.ly/SDCspeech), to make a success of his new position, which he starts in February.

Ministers were eager for Sir David to succeed Frank Green as national commissioner in a bid to bring “renewed energy” to a role that is likely to expand in the coming years. With the imminent passing of the Education and Adoption Bill, the number of schools that will fall under the Welshman’s watch will grow, as thousands of underperforming schools will be handed over to academy sponsors.

TES understands that Sir David will take a more active role in leading the team of eight regional schools commissioners, holding the group to greater account, as well as putting academy trusts under closer scrutiny.

It will fall to him and his team of RSCs to broker the multitude of deals that will result in every school judged by Ofsted as inadequate being converted to an academy. Sir David will also be expected to intervene in any school – academy or state-maintained – if they are deemed to be “coasting”.

Richard Vaughan

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