Question: when is a U-turn not a U-turn? Answer: When Nicky Morgan announces the end of the forced academisation policy.
The plain truth of the matter is that schools are being forced to become academies as I write. Schools in special measures and requiring improvement are being joined in the firing line by a new category of "coasting" schools (a category defined by unelected, unaccountable regional schools commissioners (RSCs) whose performance is judged on the rate of conversion in their areas). All schools in these categories have only one option – they are forced to join a multi-academy chain (MAT), usually foisted on them by their, often not so local, RSC.
But this is not all – it actually gets worse. Immediately after Nicky Morgan announced that she had, at last and in extremis, found her reverse gear to back away from the 2020 deadline by which time schools were all to become academies, the Department for Education (DfE) issued a statement announcing new powers for the government. So we know now that new legislation will be brought forward which will enable education ministers to trigger academy conversion of all schools within a local authority in two specific circumstances.
First, where a local authority is judged to be unable to viably support its remaining local authority schools because a critical mass in that area has converted. Under this mechanism, a local authority would also be able to request that the DfE converts all of its remaining schools.
Second, where the local authority is judged by the government to be unable to meet a minimum performance threshold across its schools, demonstrating an inability to bring about meaningful school improvement. All schools in the area would then be forced to become academies.
There is no allowance in these two latest government pronouncements to exempt good or outstanding schools. If a local authority is judged (by whom, we are not told) to be failing, or to be unviable, all of its schools will be forced to convert, en masse, to academies. Under its own calculations, the education thinktank CentreForum said that the new legislation could force all but 3,000 schools in England to convert.
The initial (and understandable) celebration following the government’s apparent abandonment of the forced academisation policy has now turned to a rather more sober consideration of where the policy is heading. It is highly unlikely to be the Conservative-controlled shire county councils which are judged (by we know not who) to be failing or unviable. That fate will be suffered by Labour-controlled local authorities that serve deprived and disadvantaged communities. And, given the lack of transparency and the secrecy which surrounds these judgements, the opportunity will be there for a weak government with a tiny majority to do as much damage to its political opponents as possible.
The abolition of QTS
But education professionals should not be under any illusions that the government’s education policy is limited to forced academisation. Ministers have other plans – one of which is to abolish qualified teacher status (QTS) and to replace it with a system of accreditation that will put school leaders in charge of certifying new entrants to the profession. Though it is not stated directly in the White Paper, an accreditation system opens the door for the recruitment of non-graduates into teaching. The White Paper does more than hint at this possibility when it talks about “experts from other fields - for example, a talented musician or a coder” being put on a “pathway to full accreditation”.
Making teaching a non-graduate profession is one, really rather desperate, way to solve the teacher recruitment crisis. And there can be no doubt, despite frequent ministerial denials, that a full-blown crisis is upon us and is already having profoundly negative effects in our schools.
A recent survey of more than 4,000 teachers revealed that a lack of qualified teachers is affecting pupils. Eighteen per cent of the respondents said that up to 20 per cent of the teachers in their schools were temporary or supply, and that teacher shortages were particularly acute in the English Baccalaureate subjects. This flux in teacher staffing was having a negative effect on pupil behaviour and attainment and was hollowing out the teacher workforce, leaving new teachers without proper support and help, because their more experienced colleagues, middle managers, were leaving the profession.
The government’s proposed abolition of QTS needs to be understood in the context of an acute and lasting teacher shortage, which is compounded by funding cuts which will plague schools throughout this Parliament. School leaders, who are already struggling to cope with a real-terms fall of 8 per cent in their budget, might give in to the temptation to delay accreditation, to tell the new teacher, "You have a full timetable and are working all the hours God sends, but you are not quite there yet – perhaps another six months before you meet the standard," in order to keep them working in their school on poverty wages.
The potential for exploitation is rife because, whilst they are awaiting accreditation, new teachers are stuck, unable to move schools, unable to mount much of a challenge to this potential abuse of power because, let's face it, they don't have the means, or the power, to do so.
The threat to an all-graduate teaching profession is real, it is present and it is dangerous. We need to understand what is proposed and make sure that parents, employers and other important stakeholders in our education system know just what is going to happen if we, and they, let it.
Dr Mary Bousted is general secretary of the ATL teaching union. She tweets as @MaryBoustedATL