Academies are not magic bullets: The Education and Adoption Bill
Last week’s Queen’s speech may have only made a passing reference to education, but the Government has lost no time in pushing forward its new Education and Adoption Bill, which was published yesterday. The DfE press release emphasises that it will ‘close loopholes to speed up the turnaround of failing schools’. But what does this mean and why is the Government in such a hurry to implement these changes?
Turnaround simply means converting ‘failing’ schools still maintained by local authorities into sponsored academies. There are examples where turning schools into academies has improved performance. However, as the House of Commons Education Committee emphasised in January, there is still no evidence that academies are a positive force for change overall, especially in the primary sector. Furthermore, as Stephen Ball’s recent blog emphasised, a number of academies continue to be found to be ‘under-performing’ in terms of inspection or performance outcomes. So, although the Government would like us to think that academisation is a magic bullet, the lack of evidence so far that the policy works makes it look more like an ideologically-driven move to separate schools from local oversight.
However, for Education Secretary Nicky Morgan the ideologues are elsewhere. In the press release she states that speeding up the ‘turnaround’ process in the new Bill will also remove ‘the bureaucratic and legal loopholes previously exploited by those who put ideological objections above the best interests of children’. But who have been behind many of these - hitherto entirely legal – objections? Parents. So increasing parental choice, ostensibly a key driver of Conservative education policy since the 1980s, now explicitly only applies if your choice matches government policy. This extends the centralising impulse that has forced increasing numbers of schools out of local authority control, as academies are directly accountable to central government. In January 2010, before the Coalition Government came to power, there were 203 secondary academies. Four years later there were 1789. Primary academies went from 0 to 1893 in the same period. When the pace of change is that fast, slowing down may feel like an admission of failure.
The Queen’s speech and the new Bill also link ‘failing’ and ‘coasting’ schools. Despite recent rhetoric, we have no agreed definition of a ‘coasting’ school. Happily, the Education and Adoption Bill has not rushed into offering one and indicates that there will be consultation on developing a definition over the next few months. However, it is also clear that responsibility for defining what coasting means will rest ultimately with the Secretary of State. Unlike her predecessor, Morgan has emphasised her willingness to listen to teachers. Yet, all the ‘leading headteachers and education experts’ quoted in the DfE press release in support the Bill’s new tougher measures are CEOs or Executive Principals of multi-academy trusts (not headteachers at all), so hardly likely to oppose them. We have to hope that the Secretary of State makes good on her promises to listen and consults widely on how coasting schools are defined and addressed. An approach that is based on narrow performance and progress measures, blurs ‘coasting’ and ‘failing’, and does not take into account the local contexts in which schools operate risks spending resources on imposing unnecessary changes on schools that alienate parents and teachers at a time when education budgets are being squeezed and pupil numbers in primaries are rising.