Wednesday, 10 June 2015

The Education Bill: You can have any school you like as long as it's an Academy

So, the new Conservative government has unveiled its vision for education reform and it seems to be to settle accounts with comprehensive community education once and for all.

Nicky Morgan may not have Michael Gove’s gift for generating universal animosity but her actions since the Tories won their majority remind us that politics is not just personalities. Morgan’s Education Bill, published last week represents a nakedly partisan attack, not just on comprehensive community schools but on democracy and, ironically, parental choice.

What the Education Bill will do:

The Education Bill creates a new category of ‘coasting schools’, which the Secretary of State will define later in regulations and that will bring a whole new raft of community schools within her existing power to make an academy order by making them Eligible for Intervention. Intervention will include replacing headteachers (operating with a
questionable assumption that there is an endless supply of ‘superheads’ ready to take their places), replacing governing bodies or making an academy order.

In the case of community schools rated by Ofsted as ‘inadequate’, the Secretary of State will have a new statutory duty to order them to become academies. This will make it effectively impossible to argue that the use of an academy order is a disproportionate response to inadequacy. Instead, academy status will become a necessary legal consequence of Ofsted’s rating. (*The legal implications of the Bill are usefully
summarised here.). It also rests on the assumption that making them an academy is in itself a solution to this problem. Inadequate academies (surely a logical impossibility in this world view?) will simply be transferred to another academy sponsor.

The Bill seeks to close other so-called loopholes in existing legislation. By ‘loopholes’, Morgan means the statutory duty to consult on any academy order. This was already a weak bit of legislation that gave communities little real say, but nonetheless the Conservatives seem to have found it embarrassing that communities have used the rhetoric of parental choice and the mechanism of consultation to launch some remarkably effective challenges to the academy-producing machinery set up in Whitehall. So that has to go too.

Finally, the bill places a legal duty on governors to promote and facilitate the transition to academy status. So once the machinery swings into action, a school’s governors will have a statutory duty to help the process along the way. Again, it seems that situations like that at Thomas Gamuel in our own borough, where a governing body had to be replaced to remove democratic, community opposition, were proving embarrassing and irksome.

Running throughout the Education Bill is a barely concealed contempt for democracy and community voice. The law that allows the government to create academies was already undemocratic as it removed schools from democratic oversight with minimal process. Now the last democratic spaces are to be shut down and parental choice is revealed as a useful fiction. Nothing is to be allowed to get in the way of the academisation steamroller.

Faith-based policy:

The government will argue that choice and democracy are ultimately trumped by the interests of your child. All this is being done for the children, right? But of course we know that’s not true. As
Henry Stewart from the Local Schools Network and others have argued, there is no evidence to support the idea that academy status is automatically beneficial for schools and there is some evidence that academy chains are doing worse than their community school equivalents.

This is remarkable because it shows that what’s happening here is faith-based politics. The government knows that academy status is not a magic bullet but it doesn’t care. It believes, on a fundamental level that community comprehensive school status is inherently wrong and appeals to evidence merely cloud the clarity of that insight. Its faith is based on the idea that the comprehensive experiment, like the welfare state and the NHS, are historic errors that need to be reversed and represent impurities in its emerging education market. And it is reinforced in this faith by the CEO’s of the academy chains who are queuing up to praise this bill the rafters. Just have a read of the
quotes on the government’s press release, including from Waltham Forest’s own home-grown Reach2.

What can we do?

In the immediate term, the bill will face opposition, although with the government commanding a working majority and a woefully weak education opposition from Tristram Hunt, it’s difficult to see it being substantially amended. Nonetheless OCOS will be looking to support any attempts to weaken the bill, so watch this space.

However, with such a profound attack on democracy and our community schools, we have to do more. One answer to attempts to close down democracy and exclude people from the school system is to create more democratic pressure. That means that locally, we need to use every opportunity to demonstrate that even where formal mechanisms don’t exist, the voices of parents, teachers and communities can find expression through mass meetings, polls, surveys, protests.

Similarly, if the government and academy chains don’t want us to be involved in our local schools, then we should be getting even more stuck in, using every opportunity to make it clear that we don’t accept their vision and we don’t accept a passive role in our school system.

Finally, we need to continue to build organisations, policies and a vision for an alternative school system. Locally, we have tried to contribute toward this a borough-wide campaign oriented around a positive vision for our local schools, in the form of our Charter for Education and we’ll continue to develop this initiative. But there’s much more to do. Watch this space for more soon.


  1. Well said. In Lewisham, we are going through a similar experience of trying to save our biggest secondary school from forced academisation following a change in the Board and leadership. In a bid to have a say before our voices are quashed, I have set up a petition on 38 degrees to save state education. Let's have a say whilst we can!
    Thanks. Nicky Dixon 07841 611 213

  2. Very Well said..

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