There is a legend that David Cameron was simply a slick presenter who didn’t care much about crafting policy. It has been given projection by the circumstances in which he governed for his only full term – namely, coalition. Policies tended to be traded off in the Quad. Once Cameron had gained a majority, however, much began to change. The Seven Day NHS was a personal interest of his, pushed emphatically on Jeremy Hunt at Health. So was the compulsory academisation of all secondary schools.
However, the Quad’s restraint on him had been replaced by another: that of having a small majority. His academisation plan soon ran into trouble from a predictable quarter – Conservative local authorities who, reasonably enough in some cases, believe they are doing a fine job with education in their local area. For example, Tory councillors in Hampshire were unhappy, and so were local Conservative MPs. Roger Gough, the Cabinet member for Education in Kent, expressed his own council’s dissatisfaction on this site. Cameron also ran into trouble in Oxfordshire, including in his own Witney constituency: echoes of the controversy could still be heard when local Tories selected Leave-supporting Robert Courts as his replacement.
These are big and important Conservative councils. None the less, Cameron might simply have bulldozed his plans through, with the support of Nicky Morgan at Education – who, contrary to original expectation, largely carried on where Michael Gove had left off (and duly backed him during the leadership election). This was how Margaret Thatcher proceeded with grant-maintained schools in her day. But Cameron lacked the stonking Commons majority she had possessed, and was forced to water down his Bill, setting instead a target of being in the process of conversion by the end of this Parliament. It was consequently left with few friends at court. May sacked Morgan, who had previously touted another woman (herself) as a future Party leader, in her first reshuffle.
And yesterday, Downing Street duly killed the Bill off altogether. “Our ambition remains that all schools should benefit from the freedom and autonomy that academy status brings,” Lord Nash, the Education Minister, announced in a Written Statement. “Our focus, however, is on building capacity in the system and encouraging schools to convert voluntarily.” It looks as though May wants to carry out all her secondary school education reform at the same time, including the small-scale revival of grammar schools that has caused such a stir. If so, it follows that this cannot be done now, since there is a consultation about the proposal. The Government will now introduce a Technical and Further Education Bill instead.
F.E is often the poor relation of education debate, and the Bill will in part see through previous work to put in place an insolvency regime for the sector, worked on during his time as a Minister by Nick Boles (to whom this site sends its warmest wishes as he now battles with cancer again). On technical education itself, the Government needs to do more to back up Ken Baker’s University Technical Colleges, including putting them within an academy chain. On academies, there is a questionmark over the Government dropping the Bill. Even in its compromised form, the academy plan was a sign of intent. It was a signal to poorly-performing local authorities to prepare for academisation.
There is a danger that these will now simply put their feet up – and that the losers will be pupils in what Alastair Campbell would call their bog-standard comprehensives. Furthermore, the move is bound to be seen alongside Ministers’ recent decision to drop the Gove-era compulsory testing of primary school pupils. That both are defensible may miss the point. Sending out strong and consistent messages is integral to education reform – on pushing ahead with academisation, for example. If these get muddled, impetus gets lost.