On 27 October, the government announced that it would drop plans for a new Education Bill any time before summer 2017.
In his last budget statement as Chancellor, George Osborne had announced that all schools in England would be forced to convert to academy status by 2022. The following day, 17 March, the then education secretary Nicky Morgan published a White Paper which outlined the variety of ways in which this goal would be achieved.
The scale and breadth of opposition to this proposal, not least in Tory-run local authorities, meant that by the time the now-dropped Education Bill was announced in the Queen’s Speech in May the requirement for all schools to either convert or have plans to convert by 2020 was dropped. This was a big climbdown by the recently-elected Tory government. The rapid organisation of public opposition, particularly by local NUT and anti-academy campaigners, played a crucial role in achieving it.
The left argued at the time, however, that it was important not to exaggerate this success and, above all, to understand the powers that remained in the revised Bill and how they could be used to force the great majority of schools to become academies.
At their Easter Conference the NUT had called a ballot of its members for on ongoing campaign of national strike action to win a national contract for teachers in all schools whether academies or local authority maintained. Barred by the anti-union laws from taking action against the principle of academy schools this fight for a national contract had the potential to undermine one of the major threats posed by the forced academy agenda.
Rightly, the NUT proceeded with its ballot and strike action despite the government’s tactical retreat. However, that the government u-turn did affect the strike ballot and the subsequent national action on 6 July. It will have seemed to many teachers that we had won and there was no need for any action. NUT data shows that the attendance at local reps briefings fell sharply after the retreat was announced.
This problem was unfortunately made worse by the fact that the front page of the NUT website for several days after the u-turn and during the ballot carried the headline “Victory!” In reality the NUT switched the focus of the July strike to the issue of underfunding. The withdrawal of the entire Bill is, in fact, a much bigger success.
The original retreat simply removed the worst and crudest proposal, i.e. that an arbitrary date would be set by which time every school regardless of its success or failure, regardless of the strength of its relationship with its local authority would be forced to convert to academy status. That left two significant new powers which could still force schools to convert en masse.
Firstly, if it was judged by the DfE, or their regional schools commissioners, that there were so many academy schools in a particular local authority area that the local authority no longer had the capacity to support its remaining schools, then all schools in that area would be forced to convert.
Secondly if the number of schools judged weak by Ofsted (in special measures, serious weaknesses or requiring improvement) reached a “tipping point” in a local authority area, then it could be decided that the authority was failing to support its schools and all its schools would all be forced to convert.
In the aftermath of the Queen’s Speech climb-down Tory spokespersons made it clear that they still planned to use these other measures to abolish local authority schools and replace them with academies. So the threat was very much still there. Now it is clear that there is no intention to introduce these new powers. Mainstream reporting suggests a number of potential reasons.
The obsession with academies was the agenda of Cameron, Nicky Morgan and, above all, Michael Gove, and this, say some, is Theresa May “drawing a line” under the policy agenda of her predecessors. There are also far more pressing problems in the school system, even from the Tory perspective and limited time and capacity for dealing with them.
A radical new national funding system which will see significant losers has already been delayed by a year. The assessment system is in chaos. And then there is the strange business of grammar schools.
One of May’s first new and distinct policy announcements was a commitment to promote an educational model which has minimal public support, serious opposition in her own party and a proven record of failure and social division. Why add forced academies to that daunting list of battles?
Those of us committed to defending and improving locally-run, comprehensive education should enjoy this latest move but also use it to force a retreat in the real world of school policy. There are still circumstances in which individual schools can be forced to convert to academy status and be taken over by one of the many academy chains and multi-academy trusts (MATS) that have grown up in recent years. Critical Ofsted judgements and exam results which are persistently below what the government calls its “floor targets” can force a school out of its local authority. The fight to stop the spread of academies is far from over.
Teachers, parents and school workers faced with academy proposals will be very familiar with the claims from school leaderships or pro-academy governors that “we have no choice, academy status is inevitable, it’s better to jump and choose an acceptable sponsor than be pushed and have a bad one imposed on us”.
These arguments are entirely undermined by the withdrawal of the Education Bill and should be strongly rejected wherever they emerge. This retreat also signals a broader lack of enthusiasm for the idea that academy status represents a magic solution to the school standards problem. We should take it as an opportunity to revive local fights against new academy proposals and draw a line under this failed programme.
Above all, we need to get a clear commitment from Labour that they will bring all schools back into a democratic locally-run comprehensive education service and end the academy experiment.