Academy schools: universal confusion?

27 April 2016

Last month the Government published its first education white paper, Educational Excellence Everywhere, which among other things proposed to convert all remaining local authority schools into academies by 2022. Since then, the Education Secretary has been under increasing pressure to scrap or make large concessions on the policy from across the political spectrum – including from a group of backbench Conservative MPs.

The confusion was heightened this week after reports that Ms Morgan had u-turned on the policy by considering proposals to allow high-performing local authorities to run academy chains. It was clear from her response to Steve Double MP at Education Question Time on Monday that Ms Morgan is continuing discussions with her party on the proposals – both in the Commons and Lords. However, today the Prime Minister confirmed that the universal academisation policy will be in the Queen’s Speech and that legislation will be brought forward to convert all schools to academies. While it is not clear whether agreements have been reached with those skeptical of the policy, the Government is clearly confident enough to start the legislative process.

One reason the Prime Minister was able to quash claims of a u-turn is that the proposal to allow local authorities to run academy chains is consistent with the education white paper. At the time of writing the white paper, the Government already expected staff in local authorities to set up academy chains. It stated (p.16): “To retain expertise in the system and ensure children continue to benefit from the best talent in local authorities, we expect that some individuals working in local authority teams will leave to set up new trusts or join existing ones and become academy sponsors.” One issue open to further negotiation is whether these individuals should be employed by the local authority or a new academy trust.

While not a u-turn, allowing local authorities to run academy chains indicates a lack of coherence in the Government’s academisation plans. One key reason the Government cites for converting all schools to academies and insisting the majority join or start academy chains is to breakdown so-called “geographical monopolies” of school provision and end the large variations in pupil attainment across the country. Indeed, the white paper (p.15) was clear that local authorities could never have a transformative impact on education across the country due to their geographical limitation: “When every school is an academy, groups of schools will be able to span geographic boundaries, with the best MATs expanding to run schools in our toughest areas in a way that no high-performing local authority ever could.”

The Government is at risk of losing this vision. Academy chains run by local authorities simply cannot have the same impact on the education system as some high performing, larger chains unless they are given powers to expand beyond the local authority area. It is difficult to see how these expansion powers could be given to local authorities without new, distinct academy trusts being created.

There are many other potential benefits of more schools joining larger, high performing academy chains, as argued in a report Reform published last year, such as spreading best teaching practice, building economies of scale and improving school governance. There is no prima facie reason why local authorities cannot achieve this for the schools they manage if the staff they employ are open to new innovative ideas, and face no regulatory barriers to implementing these ideas. However, there will always be a limit to their potential, constrained by geography. The Government must explicitly recognise this to avoid confusing its core message on academisation and the benefits of academy chains.

 

 

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