Barely a week goes by without a major education policy either being shelved or announced. This time around it’s the turn of the very nature of how schools are managed, governed and where overall financial accountability lies: the requirement for all schools to convert to academy status.
It wasn’t too long ago, back in March of this year in fact, when David Cameron was still prime minister. A draft Education Bill was published announcing that every single school in England was to be taken out of local government control and turned into having independent academy status. The prime minister at the time said his ‘vision for our schooling system’ was to place education into the hands of headteachers and teachers rather than ‘bureaucrats’.
The government has now implemented a major U-turn, and has now dropped the bill that had the aim to convert all schools to academies. The original plans would have required every school to adopt academy status, or have plans to do so, by 2022. The section that made it mandatory for all schools to join academies has now been removed following large-scale protests from councils and local authorities. The government is still focused on encouraging schools to walk away from local authority control, with Education Secretary Justine Greening saying that ‘our ambition remains that all schools should benefit from the freedom and autonomy that academy status brings. Our focus, however, is on building capacity in the system and encouraging schools to convert voluntarily.’
Academies are independently run – but state-funded – schools, overseen by a not-for-profit business, known as an academy trust. They are often part of a chain or group of schools. Two of the largest multi-academy groups in the UK are Harris Federation and Ark, who oversee the running of more than 70 schools between them.
When the policy was first announced, shock waves were sent through the education system, despite 60% of all secondary schools in England already having academy status. The shadow education secretary at the time, Lucy Powell, vocally protested against this direction claiming there was ‘no evidence to suggest that academisation in and of itself leads to school improvement’.
Powerful players within education also questioned the logic behind the policy, with Sir Michael Wilshaw, the chief inspector of schools having written to the secretary of state for education observing serious weaknesses in academy chains. The shadow schools minister at the time went on to question: ‘how can the government plough ahead with the wholesale academisation of all schools in light of his evidence beggars belief. We want to see robust accountability and oversight of all schools regardless of type.’
Many county councils felt they were doing a good job, and should be left alone. They argued that academisation was the solution for schools that were failing or chronically underperforming. It was this stiff opposition from the shires and counties that made the U-turn unavoidable.
Fighting the local authority corner
Councillor Roy Perry, chairman of the Local Government Association’s children and young people board, said: ‘Ofsted has rated 82% of council-maintained schools as good or outstanding, so it defies reason that councils are being portrayed as barriers to improvement. Ofsted has not only identified that improvement in secondary schools – most of which are academies – has stalled, but it has praised strong improvement in primary schools, most of which are maintained.’
He said only 15% of the largest academy chains perform above the national average in terms of pupil progress, compared with 44% of council-run schools. It’s vital that we concentrate on the quality of education and a school’s ability to deliver the best results for children, rather than on the legal status of a school, to make sure that we’re providing the education and support needed in each area. Forcing schools to become academies strips parents, teachers and faith groups of any local choice.
However one area that stands out and requires further debate is the observation that councils had to spend millions of pounds to cover the costs of schools becoming academies. The National Audit Office estimated that back in 2012, the Department for Education spent an additional £1 billion on the cost of the academies programme, with mixed evidence about academisation leading to improved standards.
Let us have your thoughts
There can be little doubt that the whole academy programme has thrown up a number of powerful arguments both for and against the whole process. As with all complicated systems, there are going to be examples of where academies have performed better and worse than their local authority counterparts. What are your thoughts about the current state and structure of the education system as a whole? Are you for or against removing schools from the direct control of local authorities? We can’t wait to read your views!