Cllr Roger Gough is the Cabinet Member for Education and Health Reform at Kent County Council.
Since the White Paper Educational Excellence Everywhere was published in the aftermath of the Budget, its provisions for a wholesale shift of schools to academy status have met with a rising groundswell of concern and opposition. This has not just come from what might be considered the usual suspects, but from many within our Party across the country.
It is important to be clear about what this reflects – and what it doesn’t. This isn’t about councillors trying to hang on to their fiefdoms. Nor is it about denigrating academy status or those schools who have already adopted it. In Kent, for example, some three quarters of our secondary schools, and around a quarter of primary schools, are academies. The local authority has deliberately sought to be agnostic about the status that schools choose and works well with most academies and free schools. (To take an example that attracted national interest, the Sevenoaks grammar annex was the result of collaboration between an academy and the County Council).
Academy freedoms – many of which relate to national requirements, such as the curriculum – are in many respects very welcome. Free schools can bring new capacity, energy and ideas to the sector. Where they work well, Multi-Academy Trusts (MATs) are powerful and valuable players in the school system. Local authorities are not the sole source of wisdom on school improvement (though their role and performance has often been unfairly traduced, a point to which we will return).
So, why is it that for many of us these proposals – which were not in last year’s manifesto – are several bridges too far? Here are some reasons why good and loyal Conservatives are deeply concerned.
Uniformity instead of school autonomy. In the early years of the academy reforms after 2010, school autonomy was promoted as a central policy theme. Many schools (especially secondary schools) opted to take academy status. Others (especially, but not only primary schools) did not. Whitehall now clearly believes that it knows those schools’ best interests than they do themselves. School autonomy only counts when it comes up with the ‘right’ answer. Nor are the wishes or choices of parents seen to count for anything, a paternalistic and technocratic approach reflected in the equally unjustified proposal to end the requirement for parent governors. None of this seems a very Conservative way of thinking.
A weak evidence base.The logic of insistence on compulsion must be a belief that academisation is the only route to becoming a good or outstanding school, or at the very least that there is a demonstrable, systemic difference between the performance of academies and that of maintained schools. Yet the evidence simply does not support this.
A little over a year ago, the Education Select Committee – cross-party, and under a Conservative chairman – concluded that, while the growth of academy status had certainly gone in step with improvements to education overall, “Current evidence does not allow us to draw conclusions about whether academies in themselves are a positive force for change … Academisation is not always successful nor is it the only proven alternative for a struggling school.” There are certainly examples where a switch to academy status has contributed to the revival of a failing maintained school. Yet there are also examples of academies that have struggled, and of maintained schools that have performed strongly or revived without changing status.
Overall, schools have delivered a significant improvement in standards and performance in recent years. All those involved in education, including the Ministers providing national leadership, can take credit for this. But in this improvement, academies and maintained schools have advanced in step. In Kent – and in many other parts of the country – the strongest improvement in Ofsted ratings recently has been seen in the predominantly maintained primary sector.
In her evidence to the Select Committee, the Secretary of State – then very new in post – said, “I do not want to set any targets [for academisation]… I see the benefits of academisation, but … I am a carrot rather than a stick politician. I would like people to be persuaded of the benefits of conversion, rather than me sitting in Whitehall setting targets or compulsion.” That still seems like a very sensible philosophy.
A reduction in local accountability. Even in an academy-based system, there will be significant tasks to be carried out at a level between the individual school (or even MAT) and the Secretary of State – the ‘middle tier’ much beloved of education pundits. Some of this role will continue to be carried out by local authorities, such as delivering the huge increase needed in school places, coordinating the admissions system and much of the assessment and support for pupils with Special Educational Needs.
On this, at least, the White Paper is admirably clear. However, significant powers have, over time, accrued to bodies who are not locally accountable, notably the Regional Schools Commissioners. It is no criticism of the RSCs themselves to point out that their accountability is solely upwards – to the Schools Commissioner and the Secretary of State – even as they make decisions (such as which sponsors take on particular schools or groups of schools) with massive local impact. This aspect of the academies programme has nothing to do with school autonomy, and everything to do with the nationalisation and regionalisation of parts of the school system. Local accountability – whether at the ballot box or through steady exposure to local communities and local media – is downgraded as a result.
Upheaval, not transition. The scale of the task of full academisation by 2020-22 is huge, and the question of the capacity that exists within the school system to take it on is unanswered. In Kent, we have undertaken academy transfers for around 180 schools since 2010. To complete the task will require the transfer of more than twice as many schools – almost 400 in total – at a cost to the council tax payer that will run into millions
Meanwhile, the Government insists that most of the new academies will have to be members of MATs. That is logical – stand-alone academies run a greater risk of isolation and introversion – but most of the MATs do not even exist yet. The experience even of academisation since 2010, itself a very rapid change by international standards, has been that it has often run ahead of the capacity of academy chains to expand while sustaining quality. Yet what is now proposed is a further, forced acceleration.
In Kent, the County Council has been keen to see more of our strong schools who are currently stand alone academies take on MAT leadership, increasing the diversity of provision. But we know that this is not the work of a year, or even a few years. Developing strong MATs right across the system is a big task, and even the academies forum FANSA – while supportive of the overall direction of travel – has questioned the government’s timetable and whether the capacity exists in the system to deliver it.
Concerns have also been raised – and rightly – about small, particularly rural primary schools. A village school with an annual admissions number of perhaps 15 pupils will be central to community life in its village, but of doubtful interest to sponsors. Such schools may well need the support of some sort of wider network, but other options such as federations may be better for them.
The Government’s timetable raises a further concern, and that relates to school improvement. The White Paper – and the associated consultation on a National Schools Funding Formula, published earlier in March – makes much of the case for a ‘school-led’ (and MAT-led) system of improvement. Local authorities are expected to ‘step back’ (as the consultation delicately puts it) from school improvement at the end of the next academic year, i.e. summer 2017.
While the fundamental principle that more of the improvement drive should come from within schools and MATs is logical, the insistence that local authorities should play no role is doctrinaire. I struggle to reconcile these proposals with the Ofsted reports that I read weekly, describing another Kent primary school that has gone from Requires Improvement to Good, or from Good to Outstanding and noting the positive role of local authority school improvement advisers. Yet even if the overall policy is accepted, its timetable is incoherent, with the shutdown of local authority school improvement running several years ahead of the academisation of much of the school system, in particular that of primary schools.
Academy status has spread rapidly through our school system in recent years. It may well not be right for all schools, yet it is likely to undergo further organic development (along with the growth of stronger MATs) in the coming years. Yet this process is pre-empted by the White Paper’s forced march.
A policy that refuses to recognise local choice and differentiation. A tidy-minded rationalist blueprint supported by a poor evidence base. A large-scale upheaval for uncertain gain. Isn’t this what Conservatives ever since Burke have opposed?