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Was this the week the academies dream began to die?

Major policy reforms suggest ministers no longer consider academies a magic bullet

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Major policy reforms suggest ministers no longer consider academies a magic bullet

Was this the week that the academies dream died?

Between Damian Hinds’ accountability announcements 10 days ago at NAHT conference and then Friday’s DfE response to the Green Paper consultation on faith and grammar schools, I’m beginning to think so.

Why? Well it’s been a very significant few days of education policy.

Firstly, last week’s accountability regime proposal explicitly downgraded the likelihood forced conversion. The only circumstance where that will happen is when a school is put in special measures by Ofsted. Falling below the floor standard, whatever that looks like, will no longer play a big part as a trigger. That was hugely significant.

But then we had Friday’s big reveal, which was arguably even more important for those of us geeks who like to try to second guess what the DfE’s top bananas are thinking.

As well as all the stuff about grammars was the section on faith school admissions. Previously the government had controversially planned to allow all new faith schools to drop the cap on 50 per cent by religion, but this plan was gone. Instead ministers and mandarins had come up with a neat loop-hole: they’d steer some of the cash previously ringfenced for free schools into setting up a new batch of voluntarily-aided (VA) schools.

VA schools, are not academies, and are run by local authorities together with the local diocese, and have always been able enforce 100 per cent religious observation among their intakes.

In essence, ministers have chosen to prioritise funding for 100 per cent faith schools over funding for new free schools.

It was missed by many mainstream commentators but it is almost impossible to exaggerate how important this is, especially in tandem with last week’s changes.

For eight years the education sector has had political masters with almost messianic faith in academies and their free school cousins as the only structural way of dealing with underformance and driving school improvement. It is worth remembering that it was as recently as 2015 that then education secretary Nicky Morgan produced a white paper proposing 100 per cent academisation.

How times have changed. Why? It could be part of a change of culture in the DfE that recognises that curriculum is a bigger driver of school improvement than school type. While there may be something in that, it’s just as important that the political winds altered direction post-Brexit referendum and there’s very little political capital invested in academisation in No 10 or the DfE (whereas there is in faith schools).

Neither greater selection nor harder admissions to faith schools are likely to nudge the dial much on educational performance - indeed most evidence suggests they will double down on middle class educational advantage - but the fact remains: the era of academies being promoted as a magic bullet is over.

And all I can say to that is, blimey.

Ed Dorrell is head of content at Tes

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