Academisation is still the DfE agenda – there is no U turn

The DfE may indeed be just about the most inept department in Whitehall when it comes to actually running anything. But no one can deny that its superb at spin. Their ability to persuade the media that black is really white never ceases to impress.

Just a few weeks ago it published the notorious White Paper “Education Excellence Everywhere”. At its heart was delivery on the pledge made by Cameron and Osbourne to achieve total academisation and to end the local authority role in the school system. As is often the case with this government, they don’t seem to have seen the storm coming. Tory councils were outraged and backbenchers queued up to condemn the proposals.

So on the day after the local elections, out comes the news – U turn – compulsory academisation abandoned – panic over – everyone can calm down and forget all about it.

But in reality this was a brilliant example of how to get the media almost universally looking in the wrong direction. Claims of victory for the opponents of academisation fed into that narrative but were sadly misjudged. In reality, the destination is unchanged – only the route to it has been tweaked. It is still the case that:

  • Under the Education and Adoption Act all schools found to be inadequate by Ofsted will be made academies (except of course many of them are already!)
  • Under the same Act, “coasting” schools can be made into academies
  • All schools in underperforming LA’s will be made into academies
  • All schools in LAs where a lot of schools are already academies will be forced down that route.

On the Local Schools Network, Henry Stewart has looked at which local authorities will be affected by the last two proposals – see It seems likely to be a nakedly political process designed to pacify Tory local authorities and small rural schools.

But, make no mistake – there is no change in the objective and the reprieve for the Hampshire’s and Oxfordshire’s will only be short term. Sooner or later they will be in the firing line.

These proposals will require legislation so there is the opportunity to build resistance around the parliamentary process

On 25th May at 6.00 pm, SEA with its partners in the Reclaiming Education Alliance, is holding a meeting in the House of Commons to help to do just that. Speakers will include Christine Blower, General Secretary of the NUT. Details of the meeting and how to book your place are here:

It’s really important to show we are not taken in by the DfE’s mind games. So if you possibly can, do come to this meeting and help plan the campaign against these proposals.

As the White Paper falls apart, Labour needs to come up with a new settlement for schools.

The proposals in the recent White Paper seem to be falling apart at a quite remarkable speed. As Tory local authorities and backbenchers queue up to condemn its plans for complete academisation, we hear that the DfE is frantically searching for some alternative that it can claim is not a wholesale U turn.

At education questions today, Morgan and Gibb responded with their usual flannel about devolving decision making to the front line and with their usual dodgy statistics. They did however come out with a new one (to me anyway). Schools must become academies so they can share their good practice with others. I have to say it is news to me that local authority schools are forbidden to work with other schools but if the Secretary of State says so, it must be true …. I suppose….

The latest suggestion, in the press today, is to allow “good local authorities” to form their own multi-academy trusts. Despite Osborne and Cameron asserting that the days of local authority control of schools will be over. And despite the fact that being an academy chain would give a local authority far more power than they’ve had since 1988 – the power to appoint all the staff, to set budgets and hold back any money they like all without being bothered by annoying governors.

But much of the criticism of the White Paper is of the “I’ve nothing against academies; it’s the compulsion I don’t like”. That is something that needs challenging. One thing the government is right about is that having two entirely different systems for running schools makes no sense. But their answer is the wrong one. The academy model is fundamentally flawed because:

  • There is no evidence that academies do any better than maintained schools.
  • Schools should be rooted in and accountable to their local communities. This is not just about “throwing out the rascals” at elections. It’s about taking decisions close to the communities that are affected and having schools governed by representatives of that community not by remote sponsors or civil servants.
  • Academies involve more bureaucracy not less. Every school has an individual legal contract with the DfE and has to comply with charity law and company law. It has to manage its own HR, health and safety, accountancy, audit, purchasing and compliance with a myriad of regulations and instructions from government.
  • The so-called academy freedoms are illusory. All headteachers are free to manage their schools – including staffing and budgets – as they see fit within the law. All schools, including academies, are constrained in terms of the curriculum by the demands of testing and examinations. Increasingly governments have imposed through legislation additional duties and constraints on academies.
  • Academy chains are private organisations concerned fundamentally about their own success and survival rather than the interests of pupils and families. So, schools are moved between chains and chains close down or merge without any reference to the communities they supposedly serve
  • Central government can’t supervise thousands of schools from the centre. This has become increasingly apparent and has been pointed out by both the select committee and the Public Accounts Committee.
  • As a result the scope for abuse has been huge. We have seen financial scandals, excessive exclusions, abuse of curriculum freedoms, manipulation of admissions, refusal to accept pupils with SEN and self-aggrandisement by empire-building headteachers. Not everywhere but on too many occasions to be acceptable.

It’s great fun to watch Tory plans falling apart. But that’s not enough. We’ve said we want to restore local accountability. We’ve said we want schools to be able to focus on teaching and learning rather than unnecessary bureaucracy. We’ve said we want proper planning of school places and fair admissions.

So it’s time that Labour began to argue for a new settlement that applies to all schools and:

  • Gives local authorities the responsibility and the power to plan school provision in their area, to ensure fair access for all and to monitor both standards and compliance with the proper standards of public life.
  • Empowers individual schools, frees them from the central control of academy chains and enables them to develop their own ways of working together while ensuring that all schools have the support that they need.
  • Gets rid of the absurd and incompetent bureaucracy of the Education Funding Agency, funding agreements, limited companies and charitable status, replacing it with a simple consistent model of public service governance and regulation
  • Ensures that the voice of parents and local communities is heard in all schools.
  • Gives schools as much freedom as possible consistent with meeting the needs of all their pupils and their whole community.
  • Establishes a consistent structure of national regulation that applies to all schools.

This would be a solution that will put behind us the absurd battles over school structures. There is of course the argument that structures don’t matter and you can find good teaching anywhere. But actually bad structures get in the way. They waste time, energy and money. They make the system less fair. They cause fragmentation when the need is for collaboration and planning. They enable teachers to work effectively and local people to have a stake in their children’s schooling. The reality is, if structures aren’t right, standards won’t be either.


The Education White Paper A Poison Pill

WHEN: Wednesday 25th May, 6.00pm

WHERE: Committee Room 10, House of Commons, Westminster, London SW1A 0AA

The Government’s Education White Paper has united opposition as rarely before, with uproar among parents, teachers and local authorities across the political spectrum.

The plan to force all schools to join academy “chains” and to abolish parent governors has been widely condemned, with good reason.

The government claims it is devolving power “to the front line” but schools taken over by academy chains cease to control their buildings, budget, staffing and curriculum. Schools will have no governing body of their own, so parents and local communities will have no say in how their schools are run. The chains can employ teaching staff with no training or qualifications.

What benefit will there be? Not for children or families – many chains already perform significantly worse than local authorities.

These changes are a poison pill which intended to change our schools and their relationship with local communities forever, preparing them for full-on privatisation.

 Join us in opposing this outrageous plan.

To book your place at this meeting, email your details to

Ten good reasons to oppose the Education White Paper – and one to be avoided


  • Making all schools academies will take up time and money. It will do nothing to address the real problems facing schools, especially the growing shortage of teachers and school places.
  • There is no evidence to support the contention that overall academies perform better than local authority schools. The great majority of local authority schools are good or better. What problem is the government trying to fix?
  • The White Paper promotes academy chains as the preferred model. However many chains are performing badly – significantly worse than many local authorities. The performance of 7 leading chains has recently been savaged by Michael Wilshaw.
  • There have been too many examples of financial mismanagement verging on corruption in academy chains. The Education Finance Agency is widely recognised to be not up to the job of supervising even the number of academies we have now.
  • The government claims it is devolving power “to the front line” But actually schools in academy chains lose most of their autonomy – the chain controls their premises, budget, staffing curriculum. Chains have far more power over schools than local authorities do.
  • Academies will be controlled more closely by government in future. It is going to change academy contracts to give itself more power to tell schools what to do. It will control the curriculum by imposing more and more tests on pupils.
  • Parents and local communities generally will have no say in how their schools are run. Schools will have no governing body of their own. Decisions will be taken by remote trusts and by ministers, often in secret with no supporting evidence published.
  • The academy system is designed to undermine the position of trade unions in schools and to end national collective bargaining.
  • Academies involve more bureaucracy not less. Every school has an individual legal contract with the DfE and has to comply with charity law and company law with no back office support from local authorities.
  • Academies will still be able to employ people with no teacher training or qualifications.

But there is one thing the government is right about

Ministers are right to say that having two systems for running schools is expensive and complicated. There will be a temptation to focus opposition on the compulsory element in the White Paper– that is what Tory councillors are doing. That would be the wrong position to take.

Labour should argue for a single united system – but not the one being proposed by the government.  But that means that some serious thought will need to be given to what that system could like after 2020.

How the White Paper may present some opportunities for Labour

  • A single system will be easier to change in the future that a fragmented one
  • Ministers are going to take more control over academies probably by changing funding agreements – that will make it easier for Labour ministers to put different policies into effect in the future.
  • There will be just one set of rules about monitoring and intervention through Regional Schools Commissioners. Transferring them to local authority management would then be easier than sorting out the current accountability muddle.

Schools Week asked the key question: “What will it mean for pupils? It’s answer is:

  • Almost nothing. Almost everything about the day to day running of a school can be done in one that is maintained or is an academy.



Funding reform – a power grab by ministers and academy chains – at the expense of heads and schools.

There can be little doubt that Humphrey Appelby would have described the proposals for a national funding formula as “courageous” – civil service code for potentially disastrous. With London likely to take a hammering, Ministers are taking care not to tell anyone what the effects on individual schools and localities will be until after the May elections.

Schools are already facing cuts of around 10% across this Parliament because budgets will be flat in cash terms while costs – including major hikes in pension contributions – rise. To restructure funding across the country at such a time will be, to put it mildly, an interesting and challenging exercise.

Coverage of these proposals have largely copied out the DfE press release and the summary of the key sections. Most commentators have swallowed the rhetoric of “funding going straight to schools” and have been remarkably uncritical of what is proposed. Almost no attention has been paid to two issues:

1. Through School Forums in every local authority, headteachers and governors control how the local funding formula works. Changing to one simple (simplistic?) national formula will mean heads have absolutely no say in how money is distributed. It will all be done by ministers and civil servants. Or to be precise by the Education Funding Agency which Chris Cook of Newsnight described as probably “the most incompetent body in government”.

2. The BBC summarised the funding consultation like this: “a proposed national funding formula for schools, which would be introduced next year, would see budgets going straight to schools, removing local authorities from being a channel for funding”.

This is simply not true if you’re in a multi-academy trust. Here, all the money goes to the trust and can be used for any purpose across the chain. Schools in trusts have no entitlement to any particular level of funding and chains can top slice funding for their own purposes in ways that would be illegal in local authorities. And as this is clearly the government’s preferred model of school governance, the rhetoric about money going directly to schools is clearly complete nonsense.

This may not be the best time for ministers to be making the case for academy chains. Michael Wilshaw has just launched a stinging critique of both their educational effectiveness and of their financial priorities.

Ofsted have looked at 7 trusts running hundreds of schools in all. They found:
• Poor progress and attainment
• Not enough being done to improve behaviour or attendance
• Insufficient scrutiny of teaching quality and its impact on upils’ progress
• Trusts not overseeing all their academies well
• A lack of urgency to tackle weak leadership
• Insufficient challenge from governors.

But the link between the Ofsted findings and the present funding debate lies in Wilshaw’s other comments. He claimed that senior executives were not worth their inflated salaries and that just these 7 chains were holding cash reserves of over £100 million.

Conveniently (or maybe not if you’re a minister) Schools Week has just produced data on Chief Executive salaries in academy trusts. They found some CEO’s pocketing a 10% pay rise since last year and all of them paid far more than their counterparts in the public sector.

This point here is that there is no control over how trusts use their money. There are no rules ensuring that schools can control how funding is distributed and how much goes into the bloated central management of chains.

And it is clear that this is how ministers see the future. Individual free standing academies are not what they want to see. This week has seen ministers seeking to push UTC’s into trusts as well. This means that all the rhetoric about giving power to schools is totally misleading. Schools will get the money their chain chooses to give them. They’ll teach how and what the chain tells them to with the staff that the chain allocates to them. And increasingly there isn’t even a governing body to stand up for the interests of the individual school.

No hiding place for ministers in a 100% academy system

There are widespread rumours about what the government intends to do to push forward its academy agenda later this year. Since the election they’ve nailed their colours firmly to the mast. David Cameron has said he wants all schools to be academies by 2020 and George Osbourne has talked openly about the end of local authority involvement in running schools.

No one yet knows what this will look like in practice. But it raises two sets of issues – one is around planning and accountability. The other is whether a system based on individual school funding agreements can work for so many schools. This post will look at the first set of issues and a follow up will focus on the second.

There can be little doubt that the whole area of planning and accountability is a hopeless muddle. Who actually decides what schools there should be in an area? Who makes sure everyone has a fair choice of school? Whose job is it to monitor performance and deal with problem schools?

The answer at the moment is an unholy muddle of Ministers and civil servants, Regional Schools Commissioners, academy chains and local authorities. Some things are directed in great detail from the centre and others are left to the random workings of a pseudo-market. So for example:

• local authorities still have the duty to ensure there are sufficient school places
• but they can’t require academies and free schools to co-operate with their plans
• and ministers or RSC’s can and do open, close or change free schools any time they like.

The Chief Inspector apparently still thinks that local politicians are responsible. He told CentreForum

“We need powerful political figures who feel responsible to local people for the performance of local schools. Obviously, it is a matter for government whether the recent drive to devolve powers locally should include education. But, even without more formal powers, shouldn’t local politicians take more responsibility for education and expect more of their schools?”

Ministerial views seem to have passed him by – though a cynic would perhaps say that a favourite Wilshaw pastime is blaming local politicians at every opportunity and he’s not isn’t going to give up his pleasures that easily.

But then the government’s preferred solution, Regional Schools Commissioners, have just had a good kicking from the Select Committee. The committee found that their role was unclear, their ways of working inconsistent and lacking in transparency and their objectives often inappropriate. As the Tory chair put it “the oversight system is now confused, fragmented, and lacking in transparency. RSCs are a product of the Department’s ‘acting first, thinking later’ approach when it comes to big changes in the schools landscape.”

But from another point of view, Jonathan Simons in a recent blog ( tried to argue that accountability of schools through local councils doesn’t work. The evidence he based this on was that there is no relationship between local election results and school performance. Specifically, councils with low performing schools mostly don’t get punished at the ballot box.

This is of course a very narrow definition of democratic accountability. To begin with, people vote for lots of reasons – and always have to consider whether they think any other party would do better. But more importantly, accountability isn’t just about elections. It’s about people being able to bend the ear of councillors at surgeries and about local intelligence being used in a continuing dialogue with schools. And recognising that opinion polling just today found people trust local councillors twice as much as they do government ministers.

When results aren’t good, it’s an easy temptation to just find someone to blame. Wilshaw is a past master at this – it’s politician’s fault, not enough good heads, too much poor teaching and so on. Not often do we ask ourselves, is there something about the lives of people in places where exam results are less good, that might explain it. Perhaps because that would raise some rather harder questions about inequality, the north-south divide and the collapse of decent, skilled employment opportunities in so many places.

No one would say that we’ve ever had a perfect system. But if ministers go down the road of universal academisation, writing local authorities out of the picture entirely, they’ve taken on a big job. Do they propose to shift all 198 statutory duties away from local authorities? Are they ready to trust all to the Education Funding Agency described by Newsnight’s Chris Cook as possibly “the most incompetent organisation in government”.

And most of all are ministers ready to take personal responsibility for every failing school. Do they really understand that sponsored academies perform less well than similar maintained schools both in exams and in inspections? In a famous quote, Nye Bevan said that “if a bedpan is dropped in a hospital corridor in Tredegar, the reverberations should echo around Whitehall”. That is the world education ministers seem to be happy to get themselves into. A decision they may live to regret!

The Truth about our Schools

The Truth about our Schools is a new book co-authored by our Vice President, Melissa Benn in collaboration with Janet Downs. It will be launched at Goldsmiths College, London on Tuesday 19th January from 5 to 7 pm.

The Truth About Our Schools is a blistering attack on the myths perpetuated about our schools by successive governments and the establishment.

Fiona Millar, the Guardian columnist and educational journalist, will introduce the night’s speakers. The Truth About Our Schools – which will be available to buy on the night – was written as part of a campaign mounted by the website (founded by Melissa, Fiona, Janet and Goldsmiths’ Francis Gilbert) to promote inclusive schools.

Columnist, author and activist Owen Jones described The Truth About Our Schools as “a superb, crucial, blistering expose of all the myths about our education system that are all too often used to attack it … Melissa Benn again proves why she is one of the country’s most formidable education campaigners – and why the powerful should fear her.”

The book calls for us to urgently and articulately challenge unquestioned myths about state education, as Benn and Downs meticulously build an argument for its still enormously vital role.

Full details are at


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