The next step in education policy

For all of the controversy triggered by the schools component of the Education and Adoption Bill when it was first tabled in June last year, its passage through Parliament has seen many of its most contentious elements neutered. Most notably, the plan to exclude academies and free schools from the standards that would be imposed on ‘coasting’ local authority schools has been amended to subject all publicly-funded schools to the same level of scrutiny. Concerns that the Bill’s granting of new powers to Regional Schools Commissioners (RSC) would lead towards a bias in favour of academisation were also reduced after it was announced that the system measuring their performance by how many academies they had in their region would end.

It can perhaps be said that the changes made since the original Bill was published have taken the edge off the fanaticism that has driven the acadamisation effort since 2010. But there is an alternative view that does not see sober assessment as the main reason behind the shift in the Bill’s direction. It may well be that the Bill has already been rendered partly obsolete by more profound decisions. Both the Prime Minister’s assertion in the summer of 2015 that he wanted to see all schools become academies, and the Chancellor’s claim during the 2015 Autumn Statement/Spending Review that the Government wished to “make local authorities running schools a thing of the past,” were seen by many as ideological comments rather than practical plans. But as the Local Government information Unit highlighted, the intent of the Government may have been to foreshadow a further drastic shift in the running of schools which could render much of the debate that surrounded the Education and Adoption Bill irrelevant.

The Sunday Times claimed in November 2015 that the planned reforms would be published as part of a Green Paper early in the New Year, and would aim to convert every school into an academy by 2020. That we haven’t seen or heard anything since should be no great surprise: the Government is not going to publish a paper proposing further upheaval when a major bill on the same subject has yet to complete its passage. But this still leaves the question of what to expect from future policy. Given the shaky evidence of the impact academisation has on schools standards, the decision to pursue what would effectively be ‘gunpoint academisation’ would represent one of the most ideologically driven major policy decisions in modern British history.

In truth, a more limited effort is likely that will leave the notional links between local authorities intact, but practically force an increased level of independence upon schools until their formal status becomes meaningless. An early preview of this was again given in the Autumn Statement, when a plan to cut £600m from the Education Services Grant – the money which is paid to academy schools and local authorities for education support services – was framed in the context of a desire by the Government to “reduce the local authority role in running schools and remove a number of statutory duties.” The exact details of how far this plan goes will be crucial, and no doubt subject to intense debate. Although details will likely take until the second half of this year to solidify, we should expect a significant level of insight from the Queen’s Speech this May.

There would undoubtedly be a tremendous level of resistance to ending the involvement of local authorities in schools, and it would likely emanate from a far wider field than the usual suspects that have opposed academisation from day one. Even many Conservatives would consider the scheme to be a needless fight designed to secure David Cameron’s legacy rather than effect genuine change for the better. But given the scale of what we have seen since 2010, and the current state of Her Majesty’s Most Loyal Opposition, the temptation felt by many senior government figures to leave their mark may be too much to resist.