How Cameron’s bluster tries to cover up his retreat on academies

If there’s one thing David Cameron is good at, it’s covering up policy failures and U turns with a lot of hot air and bluster. And make no mistake, the U turn he’s just made on the Education and Adoption Bill is one of the most significant retreats yet made on education policy since 2010.

The Labour opposition team has argued all through that if you’re going to have a programme to address so-called coasting schools, it needs to apply to academies as much as to maintained school. This was consistently resisted by ministers – until yesterday when it was suddenly announced that after all the bill will provide for intervention in coasting academies. The announcement reads:

“I am responding with an amendment to the Bill designed to ensure that RSCs always have the power to act whenever or wherever they encounter underperformance in our schools. I propose to amend the Bill so that when an academy or free school’s performance meets one of two triggers in legislation – an inadequate Ofsted judgement or performance that falls within the coasting definition – then their funding agreement will be read as having the latest provisions around failing and coasting schools.”

This is significant for two reasons. One is simply that ministers are admitting that academies and free schools can under-achieve – they’re not always the magic bullet that automatically brings about improvement. Indeed there has been a huge flurry of activity in the form of warning notices to academies by some Regional Commissioners. And the department press release makes much of the fact that 118 sponsored academies have had their sponsor changed. This represents about 10% of the academies that have been open long enough to reach this stage. Some might say this is quite a high failure rate for a policy whose success the Prime Minister describes as having been “extraordinary”.

Equally significant though is the way this bill is now undermining the whole principle of academies being independent schools governed by their funding agreement – which is legally a private contract. This bill is saying that at any time Parliament can override these contracts and can impose a quite different set of arrangements. This is not the first time this has happened but it’s the most high profile because it can lead directly to the termination of an agreement.

What it also means of course is that there is ample precedent for a future government imposing on academies any regulations it thinks are necessary. And it is indeed rumoured strongly that the DfE now understands what some of us have been saying for years, that the 100% academy system Cameron wants is not compatible with 20,000 individual and different funding agreements. Stand by for a lot more standardising regulation of academies.

As well as this though, it’s worth looking at the claims Cameron is making to cover up this U turn.

“Some brand new free schools are sending as many children to Oxbridge as private schools.”  Actually no 11-18 free schools have been open long enough to send anyone to university. This can only apply to the handful of highly selective 16 to 19 free schools who only accept students likely to get to at least the Russell Group.

“You control your budget, you decide on discipline policies, you set the ethos and direction of your school, and you manage it as you see fit.” It will come as a great surprise to maintained school heads to learn that they don’t control their budget, decide on discipline policies or set the ethos of their school. But it might well come as a surprise to a head in many academy chains (Harris? Kemnal?) to imagine that they are free to set the ethos and direction of their school.

“Academies in our most deprived boroughs are getting some of the best results in the country. Schools where previously only a fifth of pupils got five good A to Cs at GCSE are now seeing two thirds reach that benchmark.” Argument by anecdote is a favourite trick of education ministers. No doubt there are some such schools and some such boroughs. But it is quite apparent that just as much improvement happens in maintained schools and, in Henry Stewart’s words “sponsored academy secondaries improve their performance, on average, at a slower rate than similar maintained schools.”

“A million more children are learning in ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ schools compared with when I became Prime Minister.” Maybe so. But as Henry Stewart has again explained most of these are in primary schools and most of them are in maintained schools. It’s got nothing to do with academies, sponsored or otherwise. is an absolute must read for anyone who wants to see the facts behind Cameron’s hot air.

One Comment on “How Cameron’s bluster tries to cover up his retreat on academies”

  1. trevorfisher2 says:

    to use the Cameron statement we need to have date and source. Is this in hansard or somewhere else? It is vital to have the source to contact MPs and so on. The U turn here is alongside the U Turn of Nick Gibb who told the Research Ed conference on September 5th the government no longer claims academies etc are superior to maintained schools, which has now been confirmed in writing via my MP.

    The biggest question is why these U turns, which demolish the case for the Academies Bill and the academies programme, are not high profile media events. How come the Labour party is not calling for the bill to be withdrawn? Why are media oblivious? And on the immediate campaigning front, while Henry Stewart and Local Schools Network – and others including Terry Wrigley – have shown the case advanced by politicians to be spurious statistically, none of this has made any impact in the Westminster bubble.

    What has to happen in 2016 to show that this government flagship policy, the subject of two major pieces of legislation and the support of the Lib Dems and Labour, is a highly expensive failure which has not transformed school performance as a magic bullet – still the claim as it has been since day one?

    Trevor Fisher