Academisation – 5 thoughts on the path ahead

  1. The Schools Bill is dead, for now

Troubled from the start, the Schools Bill has not been long for this world. Bills are rarely introduced via the House of Lords and usually only when their passage is expected to be uncontroversial.

That was never going to be the case for the Schools Bill, which saw intense Tory-on-Tory fighting while Labour were content to watch on. Lords Baker, Agnew and Nash went on the attack from the start. The Conservative peers were proponents of the early academy chains. As such, they are committed to academy freedoms, which they felt were under threat with sweeping powers potentially being placed in the hands of the Secretary of State.

Baroness Barran sponsored The Bill. As a junior minister in the Department, she had limited room for movement while under fire in Parliament. The first 18 clauses – covering academy regulation, intervention and termination of agreements – were stripped from the Bill with a working party (The Regulatory and Commissioning Review) set up to propose a new way forward.

The unresolved issues in the Schools Bill still need to be addressed. However, since then we’ve had the invasion of Ukraine and the cost of living crisis, not to mention two new Prime Ministers and two further Secretaries of State. So, with the Schools Bill already in trouble and now competing with higher priorities in Parliament, it looks near certain that it will not return before the next general election – at least not in anything resembling its current form. If you believe the rumours, the DfE has already disbanded the Bill team in the department.

  1. Academisation is still very much alive

The Schools Bill’s demise has led some to conclude that the White Paper is also dead – and most importantly, the central commitment to full academisation of schools by 2030. Has this fallen too?

No, because the Schools Bill is not the White Paper. The Schools Bill focused on the thorny question of how to regulate and intervene in academies. It never included proposals to put the process or timeframe for academisation into primary legislation.

This might have been – and might still be – introduced as secondary legislation, which is rarely challenged in Parliament. But, more importantly, the ambition set out in the White Paper was only ever that: signalling the direction of travel. There are no new carrots or sticks attached and no legislation to back this up. The momentum is already in the system. It will just take time.

  1. More slowly, but not a change of direction

Does this leave the door open for a radical change of policy? Never say never. As the saying goes, a week is a long time in politics, but it looks unlikely. Should the Conservatives win the next election, they will stick to the current path. However, even with a Labour government in 2024, there doesn’t appear to be a major reversal on the cards.

Labour have played a canny game in leaving the Tories to argue amongst themselves. Labour have gone very quiet on the subject of academisation. Lord Blunkett’s recent Learning and Skills report, published in October, was strikingly reserved on the matter. Bridget Phillipson made no mention of academies or academisation in her speech at the Labour party conference. And then, more recently, interviewed on Political Thinking, Bridget Phillipson was asked directly about academisation and said: no matter what anyone’s view of academies, there’s no going back. Instead, she said, what we need is a more collaborative system around academies.

There are strong reasons then to believe the direction of travel will stay on the same path. Between academies and maintained schools, we currently have an untenable (in the long run) split in the sector with two systems running in parallel. Civil servants don’t tend to like messes and the direction of travel is only one way. It’s not obvious that the legal structures created for academy trusts even could be swept away. With local authorities’ capacity already stripped back, there are few in Westminster or Whitehall arguing for reversing the tide.

The real question is one of pace. It was always doubtful that the DfE ever had the capacity to manage the conversion process for the remaining c.12,000 schools yet to convert by 2030. This would have required roughly 120 schools to convert every single month over 8 years. A rate never yet achieved.

The enormous financial pressures on schools are also making existing trusts think long and hard about expansion and further slowing down the process. Despite the additional funding in the Autumn statement, school balances are unlikely to recover quickly.

Will LA MATs sweep in and change all of this? No. The ‘test and learn’ areas have still not been announced and will run for a year before policy is even updated and other areas allowed to begin on this path.

Besides, the DfE have made clear LA MATs will be treated like any other and have to begin with 10 or fewer schools and build from there. So they won’t be sweeping in tens of schools at a time.

  1. There will always be a middle tier

Another key point – less reported on – in the White Paper is the changing role of the ‘middle tier’.

The future role and responsibilities of local authorities is clearly set out. They will champion inclusion in relation to admissions and SEND, but they will have no role in school improvement. The White Paper sets out a vision of school improvement taking place inside MATs once they reach a critical mass of 10 or more schools in the trust.

This is a real mistake for school improvement. First, trusts (all trusts, but especially smaller ones) always need to look beyond their own schools for the latest innovations in practice and to access high-quality, objective support and challenge.

There is no comparison between having one highly paid ‘Director of School Improvement’ and having access to all the insight, networks, skills and expertise that HEP (and our equivalent organisations in other areas) can offer at a fraction of the price.

Second, there is a danger that collaboration could completely break down without a local partnership working across schools and trusts. Take our work on racial equity, for example. This is something on which each school leads individually but is far stronger because we work together with a commitment to the communities in Haringey and Enfield. Without the glue in the system, these key features of success are likely to be lost.

For this reason, there will always be a need for a middle tier even in a fully academised system.

The question is: will the DfE cramp local authorities only to inadvertently bring about a much more fragmented market in school improvement to grow up in its place? This is why we think area-based, schools-led school improvement partnerships like HEP are needed more than ever.

  1. More haste, less speed

We’re only half way through what might seem an interminably slow transition from a local authority-based system to a fully academised one.

Yet, rushing to the finish line would be an enormous mistake. For existing trusts, it makes no sense to prioritise growth over building capacity, quality and sustainability. For maintained schools, the decisions leaders and governors make now about which trust they might join – or setting up their own – will likely be set in stone for decades to come. Not only that, but each school’s decision also has a spillover effect for the local area more widely.

This should take time and be organic. The risk of local fragmentation and incoherence is writ large, so it will pay to think strategically about the future.

2030 might sound a long way off, but change on this scale in the education system should have a more open-ended timeframe (assuming it remains the direction of travel). Time might just help to realise more of the potential benefits and manifest fewer of the downsides of academisation.

About the Author:

James Page

James is Chief Executive of HEP. He was previously joint Assistant Director for schools and learning in Haringey Council and has worked in DfE and extensively in central government and consultancy. He is also a parent governor in the Borough.

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