Academies are a success – introduced first by Tony Blair’s government (though put into effect rather late), and then extended under the Coalition by Michael Gove. As Neil Carmichael, the Chairman of the Education Select Committee, pointed out last week in the Commons, “80 per cent of [them] are rated good or outstanding”. And no wonder: academies have greater control over what teach and how they teach it: pay, recruitment, the curriculum, teaching practice. Conservative MPs like them and David Cameron wants more. How has it come about, then, that the Government’s plans for expansion have run into trouble – to the point where Jeremy Corbyn, drab and scatty Commons performer as he is, was able to exploit them successfully in the Commons yesterday?
Beneath the issues that are being debated – parent governors, the future of primaries, small rural schools – are two different visions of greater devolution, and it is among them that one best begins to look for an answer. The first sees academisation as the transfer of more power and freedom down to schools and teachers themselves. The second views it as moving that freedom and power up to the Education Department and new regional schools commissioners. Whichever take you prefer, Tory councillors are often resistant to change that, as they see it, cuts them out of the loop. Remember how resistant many were to grant-maintained schools during the Thatcher years.
Conservative MPs are different. They backed academy expansion enthusiastically under Gove. And they are still full of praise for it. What seems to have disturbed many is the proposed pace and scale of change. Under the Government’s proposals, every school, primary and secondary, must become an academy by 2020. It is this aspect of the plans which came most under not-always-friendly fire from Tory backbenchers last week: that list includes Richard Benyon, Stephen Brine, James Cartlidge, Richard Drax, Stewart Jackson, Edward Leigh, Tim Loughton, Jason McCartney, Will Quince and Bob Stewart.
“Call me old-fashioned, but I hold the view that if a school is well governed, well run and performing well, it should be left alone and allowed to do its job,” said Quince. This sounds like common sense, but Ministers suggest it isn’t. What matters above all, they argue, is failing and coasting schools, especially in the primary sector: what has been called “the long tail of underachievement”. Academisation will make good schools even better, and they will pass their best practise on to less good ones – since schools will usually be grouped together in Multi-Academy Trusts (MATS): the so-called “chains”. Success will cascade down the system.
Ministers also argue that Government must prepare for the tipping-point at which most schools become academies, which will have a knock-on effect on local authorities in any event. Some of their supporters also suggest that the claim that local government provides democratic accountability for school governance is a myth; that there is a conflict of interest in their role (since they cannot both represent the providers and users of the system at once) and that making all schools academies will simplify funding. This case was put forcefully on this site and Policy Exchange’s blog by Jonathan Simons. At its heart is a One Nation focus on poorer-performing schools.
This fits squarely with David Cameron’s proclaimed mission for his final term as Prime Minister – to improve life chances for everyone. The Prime Minister seems to have got the bit between his teeth about the timetable. He is undeterred by opposition from his own local authority. This brings us to the woman he appointed as Education Secretary, Nicky Morgan. Part of the reason she was sent into the department was precisely that she is not Michael Gove. Her mission was to cool the temperature. Not everyone approved of it, especially some of Gove’s friends in the right-of-centre media, of which he has many.
So having taken flack for turning the thermometer down, she is now under fire for turning it up again – for acting, in short, in the Gove-like way which originally was recommended to her by so many. There is no sign that her take on academisation differs much from Downing Street’s – or, for that matter, that Gove himself would in practice have treaded more cautiously, though the Liberal Democrats would doubtless have put a stop to academisation on the present terms, had he sought to push it. The Education Secretary is also a leading figure on the Tory Left who is mulling a punt at the Party leadership. Not all Conservative MPs are sympathetic to the prospect – or to her.
Were I one of them, duly receiving letters from constituents opposed to academisation, I would be wary of simply asking for the Parliamentary Resources Unit draft letter, adding a few tweaks and touches of my own, and sending it back by way of reply. I would remember the experience of forestry privatisation, where many backbenchers went cheerfully over the top for the Government only to find that Ministers had changed the plan – leaving them stuck in no man’s land. I would smell compromise coming. Morgan herself indicated as much in the Commons last week. It is not hard to see what some of it will look like.
There will doubtless be some sort of accommodation on parent governors: Lord Nash put up a feisty defence of the Government’s present plans on this site. This should help to address the worries about local accountability raised by Graham Brady. Ministers will stress that many MATs will be small, enabling small rural schools to group together. (“Chains” is a term which they should be quietly striving to expunge, suggestive as it is of vast fast-food enterprises churning out low-quality produce.) They have already shifted to allow local authorities to set up their own MATs. This may ease some of the concerns powerfully expressed on this site by Roger Gough of Kent County Council.
Managing academisation is Morgan’s greatest test to date. Behind her, she has a Prime Minister who has become a zealot for academies. In front of her, she has enough dissenting Conservative MPs potentially to lose the Government votes in the Commons. Somewhere to the side, she has Tory local authorities, protective of their role and apprehensive about change. And all the while she will be peppered with fire from Labour’s front bench and the teaching unions. But she is not yet seeing through a Bill. She is overseeing a White Paper. She has time to hand. And flexibility – except, presumably, on that timetable, close as it seems to be to Cameron’s heart.