The fallout from the biggest education U-turn yet

13th May 2016 at 00:00
Last week, the government abandoned plans to force every state school in England to become an academy. Here, Richard Vaughan and Eleanor Busby explain why school leaders may still find themselves caught between ministers and the unions

Has there been a U-turn over the government’s forced academisation plans?

Yes. Education secretary Nicky Morgan had said that every state school in England would become an academy by 2022, insisting there was “no reverse gear”. However, last Friday, the Department for Education said that, while it was still determined all schools would become academies in the next six years, it had decided legislation was “not necessary…to bring about blanket conversion of all schools”.

Does this mean there will be no new legislation on academisation?

No. Next Wednesday’s Queen Speech will still set out plans for new laws to “trigger conversion of all schools [to academies] within a local authority in two specific circumstances”. The first will be “where it is clear that the local authority can no longer viably support its remaining schools because a critical mass in that area has converted”.

What does a “critical mass” amount to?

Insiders say that this is likely to be measured in terms of the proportion of a local authority’s schools budget that is top-sliced to academies, rather the proportion of schools that have academy status. If the majority of school funding goes to academies, it is likely that remaining local authority schools will be forced to convert. This would mean that the status of secondaries would make more difference than primaries because they have bigger budgets.

Alternatively, the thinktank CentreForum has suggested that a local authority would be unviable if fewer than half of pupils attended maintained schools. Ms Morgan has said that she will consult on the exact definition of “critical mass” after initial legislation is introduced.

What is the second circumstance?

According to the DfE, “Where the local authority consistently fails to meet a minimum performance threshold across its schools, demonstrating an inability to bring about meaningful school improvement.”

What is “a minimum performance threshold”?

This is also yet to be defined and will be consulted on before MPs vote on it. There is already confusion over what defines an underperforming local authority. The latest Ofsted report identified 13 local authorities as “failing” because of concerns about secondary provision. But in eight of the authorities, more than 80 per cent of primary pupils attended “good” or “outstanding” schools. CentreForum suggests defining underperformance as results being below the national average in either primary or secondary schools.

How many academies would that make?

According to CentreForum, as many as 12,000 schools could be converted through the new legislation, leaving just 3,000 maintained schools. But the thinktank’s analysis is based on some major, unconfirmed, assumptions.

When will we learn more?

The Queen’s Speech is only expected to make a short reference to raising standards. And a fully formed bill may not be immediately introduced, owing to purdah ahead of the EU referendum, which begins on 27 May. Parliament will then return for just three weeks before summer recess, which could in turn push back legislation until after the political party conferences in October. So even if the changes are given a straightforward route through Parliament, the new powers may not come into effect until March next year.

Will we still end up with a fully academised system?

That is what the government is suggesting. And the new tranche of legislation, coupled with the powers to convert “inadequate” and coasting schools, contained in the Education and Adoption Act, will make it much tougher for many schools to resist academisation. The DfE highlights the fact that a record 227 schools applied to convert last month. But this is likely to be a result of the White Paper’s announcement and is not necessarily the start of a trend.

“Good” and “outstanding” schools in viable authorities can now retain maintained status. However, these islands will only remain as long as standards are upheld and nearby schools don’t tip the balance by succumbing to the temptations of academy status.

Strikes threatened as unions vow to ‘battle imposition’

The government’s U-turn on forced academisation has failed to dampen down threats of industrial action.

In 10 days’ time, the NUT teaching union plans to embark on a “serious campaign” against academisation, deregulation of pay and funding cuts with a national ballot for action. Strikes could take place as early as the first week of July.

The NAHT headteachers’ union also remains determined to fight forced academisation and is threatening industrial action despite the government’s retreat on its plan to force all schools to become academies by 2022.

Russell Hobby, general secretary of the NAHT, told TES: “It still looks like the government’s revised plans will result in the forced academisation of some good and outstanding schools against their will.”

He added: “Therefore, our conference mandate to oppose this initiative stands in full. We’ll engage with the consultation, of course, but we won’t stop battling this imposition.”

Kevin Courtney, deputy general secretary of the NUT, said that national teacher pay and conditions were still “massively at risk”. He said: “The government clearly intends to encourage academies to move away from them.”

But the Association of School and College Leaders has stressed that any potential action would be “disruptive” to schools and put an additional burden on to headteachers in the summer term.

A Department for Education spokesman said: “It is disappointing to hear any union considering industrial action, which holds back children’s education, disrupts parents’ lives and damages the reputation of the profession.”


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