Nicky Morgan has been riding some pretty choppy waters since she called for a fully-academised system in last month’s white paper. What the government might have hoped to be more or less a done deal is causing quite the storm – rivalling the Panama papers and the EU referendum to be the government’s biggest headache. But what have we learned so far and how has the sector responded?
If you’re struggling to make sense of what’s going on, here’s a quick run-through of some of the reactions and movements since the white paper was published.
A mixed response from local authorities
It’s been interesting to watch how local authorities have responded to the news that they, government willing, won’t maintain any schools by 2022. Birmingham Council has voted against the policy, while Camden Council has offered something of a work around by proposing to set up its own multi-academy trust (MAT). Could the Camden model be a way for local authorities, especially those with a proven track record of school improvement, to retain that community of schools that so many speak of? And will the Department for Education be warm to this kind of initiative? The white paper does, after all, encourage individuals working in LA education departments to leave and set up new trusts or join existing ones and become academy sponsors. What might the government make of some local authorities doing it for themselves?
Rebellion from within?
As if the ongoing Brexit debate isn’t causing enough ructions for the government, Tory councils and backbenchers aren’t unanimously in favour of the latest plans for education reform either. There are, of course, plenty of Tory MPs who support academisation. Neil Carmichael, chair of the education select committee, confidently told Parliament last week that the academies programme has delivered success to date, and Lucy Allan argued that the academy structure makes it easier to both drive up standards and tackle underperformance, citing recent success in Telford as a case in point.
But some Conservative MPs are questioning why the government could not allow schools to convert to academy status 'organically'. You might also have noted the traditional small-c conservative language around ‘choice’ and ‘localism’ that some councillors are using to distance themselves from the policy.
Lord Baker, the founder of city technological colleges, has suggested that Nicky Morgan should slow this policy down. He’s a fan of academies, but questioned the potential absence of a middle tier, and said that dropping the requirement to have parent governors would be "misguided". The "inevitability of gradualness" will play out in the end, he suggests, and Ms Morgan should rethink her approach. Calls such as this from a figure as significant as Kenneth Baker might well be worrying for the government.
Labour to 'work with anybody' to defeat the proposals
Something Nicky Morgan will have been able to predict is Labour’s opposition to the plan. Shadow secretary of state Lucy Powell has indicated that Labour will work with Tory backbenchers to try to defeat the proposals. However, this will most likely require putting sustained pressure on the government so it backs down due to the force of the argument, as the numbers in parliament mean that it is unlikely to be defeated in a vote. It’ll be interesting to see if the whole Labour party, the centre-right included, get involved in the ongoing debate.
A likely clash between the government and the unions?
Despite the opposition from some councils and MPs, the biggest clash is likely to be between the government and the unions. Both the National Union of Teachers (NUT) and the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) have either backed or are considering strike action and the NAHT is taking serious issue with the cost implications of the academisation agenda, calling instead for a focus on places, teachers and funding over "top-down structural change". It’ll be interesting to see how the unions look to get public buy-in to back them in a possible standoff with the government.
Compared to the junior doctors’ strike, for example, I don’t think it’s quite as easy for those not directly involved to see why people might be unhappy. ‘Longer working hours = reduced patient safety’ is a pretty simple argument to sell to the public. But is ‘local government’s role reduced in schools = worse education for pupils’ quite so obvious?
The Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) recognises that such a significant system change will be "very troubling to some", but takes a softer approach, looking instead for ways to manage this process and "find practical ways forward".
How have school leaders and governors been responding?
At The Key, we have seen a spike in questions about academisation from members. Some are asking whether their type of school will be affected - for example, special schools or nursery schools. Our summaries of the white paper have been our most viewed content since these were published. I’m sure there will be varying levels of awareness and action happening on the ground in schools at the moment, but it’s clear that for some of our members, at least, this is having an impact on their thinking now. A school considering joining a federation, for example, might question whether it would be better off joining a MAT, if it is going to have to make the transition at some point anyway.
What happens next?
There’s no denying that the 2016 education white paper is a big deal. But I think we have to remember that it’s a proposal and it isn’t guaranteed to happen. There is a long way to go yet. If you’ve read The Spectator recently, you might know that Isabel Hardman even suggested that Tory backbenchers are optimistic for some kind of u-turn on the policy. So watch this space.
Whatever happens, we’re here to help you navigate these waters and make the best decisions for your school. Members of the school leaders’ service can read about the white paper here, while members of the governors’ service can do the same here. And, of course, we'll be keeping our content up to date with the latest developments if and when they happen.
Response to the 2016 white paper: a timeline