As Liberal Democrat schools minister in the coalition government, David Laws was a central figure in the drive to turn more schools into academies.
But away from the corridors of power, following his party’s apocalyptic loss of seats in this year’s general election, Mr Laws is warning of the “very big risks” involved with converting all schools to the state-funded independent model.
He told TES that government does not yet have a good enough system of oversight for academy chains and there is “a tail of quite poor performance” among the schools.
He spoke as David Cameron’s desire to see all schools become academies nudged one step closer to reality, as rumours emerged that a White Paper will be published in the new year setting out how he plans to do this.
Mr Laws, who since losing his Yeovil parliamentary seat has become executive chair of the CentreForum thinktank, said: “I think there’s a very big risk that if the priority of getting everybody to be academies runs ahead of the thinking about how you deliver better leadership and governance, then people could discover that the gains are quite disappointing in relation to the degree of upheaval in the system.”
“There’s a tail of quite poor performance [in academies] and we haven’t really yet engineered the system that expands the good sponsors, identifies and deals with the weaker sponsors and thinks about how to get more high-quality leadership and governance in a system where the number of academies is expanding rapidly.”
Mr Laws’ comments come just a week after TES reported that England’s largest academy chain had received its second visit from Ofsted in the space of 18 months, after concerns about its performance.
Inspectors scrutinised the headquarters of Academies Enterprise Trust, and looked at seven of its 68 schools.
A previous inspection in June 2014 found that the chain was underperforming and that the “rapid expansion” of the trust had “hindered improvement”.
Mr Laws – who warned of the need for better oversight of weak academies during his time in office – said it would be possible to draw up legislation that would turn all secondary schools into academies at the stroke of a pen. He said he would be “surprised” if this was not among the options being considered.
Other options could include expanding academy freedoms to all schools or removing the local authority role in school funding and handing it to the Education Funding Agency, he said.
‘It’s not a crisis – yet’
Mr Laws also said he agreed with schools minister Nick Gibb’s claim that there was not a “crisis” in teacher recruitment, despite growing concern from headteachers about difficulties in filling posts.
“I think it’s always tempting for people to use words like ‘crisis’, [but] I don’t think as yet the figures are so bad that they justify the word,” he said.
“I think we would be hearing a much higher volume of complaints if we already had a crisis.” But, he said, it was “possible to envisage circumstances” over the next few years when that might be a reality.
However, he acknowledged that the difficulties of recruiting good trainees were “here and now”, referring to the recent warning from Teach First that schools were facing their worst recruitment problems this century.
“We [at the Department for Education] did at one point face a real crunch [earlier] this year in teacher recruitment, particularly for secondary [schools], and it was only really by advertising much more energetically than we have done for many years that we managed to avoid a big shortfall this year,” he said.
“When the final figures [on teacher recruitment] came out this year they were not as bad as we feared they would be.”
Mr Laws also warned that the government would have to increase school funding if its new “fair funding formula” was not going to be seen as “redistributing money from poor to rich areas”.
Deprived areas of inner London are widely expected to lose out under the proposals, designed to end a system that chancellor George Osborne said had “systematically underfunded schools in whole swathes of the country”.
Mr Laws, who was closely involved with plans for a new school funding formula under the coalition government that were later shelved, said there was a “very strong case” for overhauling the system.
But the former minister said that taking money away from the capital’s well-funded schools was risky.
“The performance of some of those higher-attaining London schools in disadvantaged areas could easily be knocked back by having very big cuts in their budgets over a period of time,” he said.
David Laws: CV
June 2001 Elected MP for Yeovil, Somerset
2007-2010 Liberal Democrat shadow secretary of state for children, schools and families
May 2010 Became chief secretary to the Treasury. Resigned from the role after just 17 days, after being embroiled in the MPs’ expenses scandal when it was revealed that he had been claiming expenses to rent a room at a property owned by his partner
September 2012-May 2015 Schools minister and minister of state at the Cabinet Office
May 2015 Loses seat at the general election
June 2015 Becomes executive chair of CentreForum thinktank