Pointing out that the education sector can at times feel a bit like a battlefield, with fiercely held positions on either side of the debate, is, I’ll concede, not the most original analogy you’ll read today. But the decision to drop the Education for All Bill is the first real sign of conflict over the future of the academies programme. While arguments over, say, Michael Gove’s curriculum were like hand to hand combat, this is more subtle. The government’s decision not to enact the bill was revealed in an announcement about reforms to technical education and FE. They’re not shouting it from the rooftops. Think of it like a cold war, with battles by proxy and subtle manoeuvres, rather than all-out attack.
The most clearly demarcated divide is between number 10 and those fighting to maintain Michael Gove and Nicky Morgan’s legacy. The previous administration spent six years building a system based on academy conversion, intervention in underperforming schools and multi-academy trusts. The final stage in the mission was the Educational Excellence Everywhere white paper, Nicky Morgan’s defining moment, which set out plans for compulsory academisation. Although that specific proposal was ditched, the general thrust of the paper, with more or less every school being part of a MAT, was clear.
Skip forward a few months and the former secretary of state is on the backbenches, asking where a return to selective education fits in with the academies agenda, and being thanked by her replacement for providing the “building blocks” of future education policy. Quite the fall. Michael Gove, having also returned to the back benches post-Brexit, found himself imploring Justine Greening to be “driven entirely by data and what works” and asking her to “press ahead with the cause of reform”. Basically, “forget about grammars and finish my good work”.
It seems clear they’re not going to get a reception for their pleas (and Michael Gove seems to have given in anyway). Justine Greening mentioned ‘academy’ once in her speech to conference, and even that was in the past tense. And Theresa May, widely accepted to be behind the grammar schools proposals, was never one of the true Tory modernisers in the first place. She wasn’t part of Cameron’s inner circle, those responsible for changing Conservative policy away from things like grammar schools and towards accepting Blair’s reforms, like academies. The decision to back away from the planned legislation doesn’t mean that government is now ‘anti-academies’, but just that they are not as evangelical as their predecessors. The grammar schools policy may not end up being implemented very widely across England, but it’s hugely symbolic because it shows the current government doesn’t believe academies to be the answer to everything.
There are some chinks of light for academy true believers, though. Firstly, the sector has been partially remade in their image. While they may not have a seat at the table in number 10, they have vocal, media-savvy supporters from schools, MATs and other organisations. These people have recognised the need to get organised or face seeing the academies movement lose its pre-eminence in the education debate. That has led to the creation of the Parents and Teachers for Excellence campaign group, whose members include high profile MAT leaders, former advisers to David Cameron, and academy supporters from think tanks. They are loud and proud about academies and free schools “helping to unleash a revolution of creativity in our schools that is raising standards”. Look out for their resistance to any further attempts by government to dilute the academies movement.
Secondly, it’s too much hassle to turn the clock back. Luckily for those who wanted to continue full speed ahead, some wheels were already in motion before the dramatic change of government earlier this year and the subsequent u-turn on Education for All. The Education and Adoption Act, made law in March, meant that the new government had to finally release the definition of ‘coasting’, for example. Justine Greening is adamant that only a few schools will fall under this definition, a sign that she’s not massively keen on the idea in the first place. But with an expectant sector waiting for the definition since the idea was mooted and a consultation completed, it’s probably better to see it out, rather than annoy civil servants who have worked on it for months.
Similarly, the actual structure of the government’s presence in the sector is geared up towards academisation. Regional schools commissioners have specific duties to encourage academisation where possible. It’d be a huge headache to try and move them in a different direction or create a different ‘middle-tier’.
What also seems to be happening, alongside the shift in government policy and messaging, is competing attempts to define the narrative around why MATs fail and what makes them work effectively. Both Sir Michael Wilshaw and Sir David Carter have offered their own analyses, with apparent disagreement over the extent to which rapid expansion of MATs leads to failure. While the chief inspector has pointed to quick early expansion as a cause of problems in MATs, the national schools commissioner has disagreed. Instead, Sir David says that too much autonomy was given to schools where it was not appropriate. This view seems to run counter to the pro-freedom agenda of much of the early Gove reforms.
This emerging conversation is not unlike the recent debate over the London Challenge, where different voices sought to establish a winning argument about why it succeeded. Was it because of the academies movement and autonomy, or due to the greater collaboration the policy encouraged? Whichever analysis wins the argument then goes onto affect future policy-making. Similarly, if the sector reaches a consensus that it was ‘too much autonomy’, for example, that lead to some MATs struggling, it may well mean that future academies policy places emphasis on central control, rather than the ‘let a thousand flowers bloom’ message that seemed to be the original idea behind academisation. This is a secondary battle, aimed at defining how MATs should operate in the future.
What we are likely to see is the internal workings of the DfE and sector at large continuing towards full academisation, but at a noticeably slower pace, as the government’s emphasis in public is put on policies more attuned to the current administration’s passions. It was telling that the part of the white paper that most certainly going ahead is the ‘achieving excellence areas’, renamed ‘opportunity areas’. The policy, which aims to boost social mobility, seems like a good fit for Justine Greening. She attended a comprehensive in Rotherham, and used her speech at conference to speak about her upbringing. The proposal was also one of the few parts of the white paper that didn’t put an emphasis on academisation, but it seems to be the most popular with the new secretary of state.
Too much time has passed for there to be any serious rowing back on the academies movement, but the decision to drop the Education for All Bill is symbolic of a shift in government priorities that will be cheered by some, while admonished by others.