The Education Bill that has been laid before Parliament this week is as offensive to parents and local communities as it is disrespectful to teachers and school leaders. It also completely misses the point.
In summing up the ineptitude of this piece of legislation, there are a number of facts that need to be spelt out.
Schools across our country are facing a crisis in teacher recruitment.
Schools across our country are facing a crisis in funding and sharply rising costs of operation. The schools budget, in real terms, has not been protected.
There is no proven capacity in academy chains to take over as many as 1,000 schools in the next five years.
Academy status is not a silver bullet for school improvement and many academies are also considered to be “failing”.
What schools desperately need at the moment is action on school funding, action on teacher recruitment, and action on supporting school leaders in challenging circumstances. This Bill delivers none of this.
Instead the Bill, if passed, will see up to 1,000 “inadequate” schools converted without any guarantee that this conversion will lead to better pupil outcomes.
Furthermore, where is the capacity in the academies system? We know that 18 academy chains have in the past been prevented from expanding by the Department for Education because of concerns about standards.
And as was stated in SecEd last week, the DfE also knows that the largest multi-academy trusts cannot manage more than about 50 schools, certainly if many of those are schools recovering from “failure” (Academy reforms: You and whose army? SecEd 416, June 4, 2015).
As so many commentators have said, time and again, school improvement is not about school structure, but about investment (school funding, see above) and the right teaching and leadership workforce (recruitment, see above). But on these issues, the government’s head is planted firmly in the sand.
Genuine school improvement is also about collaboration and support between local schools, but the academy system only serves to drive competition between schools.
Furthermore, the DfE rhetoric over academy consultation is shameful. Local communities, parents and residents, have a right to be consulted about changes to their local school. And that is the end of the argument.
That a government should seek to legislate to remove the right of consultation from citizens of our country is abhorrent. The fact the DfE should then seek to spin this act as a positive step shows just how little it respects the rights of the general public.
The DfE states: “Previously, campaigners could delay or overrule failing schools being improved by education experts by obstructing the process by which academy sponsors take over running schools.”
Even if there was one case where the system of consultation was abused for these purposes, does this mean all communities should lose their right to be consulted? This attitude from the DfE is dangerous and deeply concerning.
We then enter the realm of Orwell’s 1984 when Nicky Morgan says that the Bill “will sweep away the bureaucratic and legal loopholes previously exploited by those who put ideological objections above the best interests of children”.
Since when did ideological objection become a blight that our elected ministers are obliged to tackle? And is not the policy of academy conversion and increasing the role of private enterprise in the running of our state schools also “ideological”.
And then we had, on BBC television last week, Ms Morgan point blank refusing to discuss “failing” academy schools. Our elected secretary of state refused more than once to answer questions about how many academy schools are considered “inadequate” and to tackle the increasingly large elephant in the room – that academy status is not a proven method of school improvement.
It goes to show how much the DfE is ignoring the full picture of evidence in relation to academies.
For me, the farce was completed when reading the supportive quotes that the DfE helpfully provided to the national media. All from academy trusts, they are unsurprisingly glowing with praise for the Bill. One CEO states that the plans “will mean that no child is left behind”.
I only wish that this were truly the case – it evidently isn’t.
And then we come to the coasting schools policy. Coasting schools will become eligible for intervention under the plans – probably academy conversion too, eventually.
So are you a coasting school? Well, actually, you won’t know. Because the DfE does not deem it necessary to explain what it means by coasting schools. Even though the Bill has now been placed in Parliament.
It states that: “The secretary of state may by regulations define what ‘coasting’ means in relation to a school.”
This is unacceptable. As the NAHT said, the refusal to define “coasting” is driving “fear and confusion” in schools. A definition needs to be published immediately, because in light of the Orwellian approach to academy conversion, the cynic in me can’t help but feel that “coasting” might be applied to “any school that the DfE wants to convert to academy status”.
So there we have it. The views of parents and local communities dismissed, the professionalism of teachers and school leaders ignored, and no action whatsoever to tackle the real crises of recruitment and funding, which will do more to damage our children’s educational outcomes than will the tiny proportion of secondary schools currently rated as inadequate.
Pete Henshaw is the editor of SecEd. Email firstname.lastname@example.org