Education Bill scrapped: the local government impact

by Stacey Dingwall

This week saw the UK government officially drop plans for the Education Bill it announced during the Queen’s Speech earlier this year. Initially announced by then Chancellor George Osborne during last year’s Autumn Statement, the Bill would have seen all state schools in England removed from local authority control and forced to become academies by 2020.

Academies: the government’s U-turn

As we reported at the time, reaction to the plans was broadly negative. Critics of academies point to the lack of evidence that academies are successful in raising attainment, particularly among pupils from deprived areas.

Despite tweeting in March that “Full academisation will empower great teachers & leaders giving them autonomy and accountability to let their schools succeed”, then education secretary Nicky Morgan announced only two months later that the negative reaction from the education sector had convinced the government to drop plans for total academisation.

Of course, a matter of mere months can be a long time in politics, particularly in a year that has seen the country divided by Brexit and the complete overhaul of a government that was only elected one year prior. While the scrapping of the Education Bill could seem abrupt, in fact it fits in with the wider determination Theresa May has shown in trying to shape policy direction since she took office six months ago. Indeed, the Education Bill is just one of the policies – and departments – that the new PM has scrapped so far.

What does this have to do with grammar schools?

Aside from academies and free schools, the other key issue dominating English education policy is that of grammar schools. Overturning the Labour government’s ban on introducing new grammars is one of four proposals in education secretary Justine Greening’s ‘Schools that work for everyone’ consultation paper. Ever since the government’s proposal to bring back grammar schools was leaked in September, the plans have been met with widespread criticism, including by outgoing Ofsted chief Michael Wilshaw.

Current education secretary Justine Greening says that scrapping the Education Bill is not directly linked to the grammar schools plans. However, others, including the Labour opposition benches, suspect that it indicates that the government is having second thoughts again – this time on reintroducing grammars.

Funding cuts

While the scrapping of the Bill means that local authorities will retain control over state schools, it has created an issue in terms of funding. When the government announced its plans for total academisation, cuts of £600m to the Education Services Grant awarded to local authorities were also planned. Sir Richard Watts, Chair of the Local Government Association’s Children and Young People Board, has urged the government to reverse this decision, stating that while the Board is pleased that councils’ concerns over education reform have been listened to, implementing the cuts would seriously hamper local authorities’ ability to ensure children are able to access a range of educational services.

Aside from providing access to things like speech therapy and music lessons, the funding also helps councils to plan for new school places each term. A lack of school places is an ongoing concern in England, with a predicted shortfall of 10,000 primary places across the country within four years. Research published last week also indicted that half of secondary schools are oversubscribed, particularly those rated the highest by Ofsted.

The looming funding cut has also been criticised by Conservative-led councils, who argue that the funding is vital to their provision of school improvement services. Following the scrapping of the Bill, schools will be legally required to run school improvement services from next year. It remains to be seen just how they will be able to achieve this following yet another reduction on funding from central government.

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Is the total academisation of schools in England a good idea?

by Stacey Dingwall

In one of the major announcements made as part of last week’s Budget, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, declared that all schools in England must become academies by 2020, or at least have official plans to do so by 2022. Any schools who fail to comply with this timetable will be forced to do so under new powers adopted by the government.

The policy, Osborne claimed, would “set schools free from local bureaucracy” and is part of his government’s plan to “make sure that every child gets the best start in life”. As the plan was announced, Education Secretary Nicky Morgan tweeted that “Full academisation will empower great teachers & leaders giving them autonomy and accountability to let their schools succeed”. Writing in a white paper published the following day, her department stated that removing schools from local authority control would help to “empower local communities, putting children and parents first and clearly defining the role of local government”.

More academies – the reaction

Reactions to the announcement were broadly negative, with the reform attracting criticism from local authorities, the shadow education secretary, unions, teachers, think tanks and parents, amongst others. Alongside Conor Ryan, Director of Research at the Sutton Trust, many pointed towards the fact that limited evidence exists of academies’ ability to improve the attainment levels of disadvantaged pupils, which was their original purpose. A loss of accountability to parents was also raised as a concern by some, including the Local Government Association, who stated that they opposed the handing over of “significant” powers in areas – including the curriculum – to “unelected civil servants”.

It was also noted that the government has decided to go ahead with the reform despite a recent letter to Morgan from Sir Michael Wilshaw, the Chief Inspector of Schools in England and head of Ofsted, which described the results of recent HMI inspections of academies as “worrying”. Wilshaw also wrote that many of the inspected multi-academy trusts displayed the same weaknesses as the worst performing local education authorities, and that the large salaries paid to the chief executives of these trusts was a “poor use of public money”.

Ongoing concerns

The Budget announcement comes almost two years after we first looked at issues with the academies programme on the blog. At that time, we reported on concerns that money which could be spent on addressing the shortage of school places in London was instead being used to open academies in areas where there was no urgent need for more places.

International experience: America and the Netherlands

After facing similar criticism to the English programme of failing to improve the attainment of poorer pupils, some are suggesting that the American charter schools programme, which heavily influenced the creation of the academies programme, is in decline. The Mayor of New York, Bill de Blasio, continues to be a vocal opponent of the movement, despite facing legal challenges over his refusal to guarantee space to new and expanding charter schools.

Speaking at a town hall meeting in South Carolina in November 2015, former charter supporter and potential Democrat presidential nominee Hillary Clinton voiced her opinion that charter schools do not engage with the “hardest-to-reach” kids, or if they do, “they don’t keep them”.

Writing for the Institute of Education, University College London blog, Toby Greany and Melanie Ehren considered the experience of the Netherlands, a country whose schools system has higher rates of autonomy than England. Two issues experienced by the Dutch Schools Boards, which were set up to oversee groups of primary schools, are highlighted as particularly relevant for England:

  1. Some Boards have been placed into special financial measures due to their failure to correctly predict their pupil numbers; this, it is argued, could befall academies in England who cover more than one local authority area.
  2. Due to limited engagement with teaching staff and parents, the Boards have not managed to fully embed themselves as legitimate in the eyes of society.

Evidence update

Since our 2014 blog, both the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) and Centre for Economic Performance (CEP) have published new evidence on academies, focusing on their impact on pupil attainment. In their May 2015 review of available evidence, the NFER noted several difficulties in evaluating the performance of academies due to several gaps in the evidence. The review concluded that while there is some evidence to suggest that sponsored secondary academies have had a positive impact on attainment, no significant difference in progress could be found between converter academies and similar non-academy schools. In addition, no conclusive evidence was found of the impact of academisation on primary pupils’ attainment.

In a think piece published alongside the evidence review, the NFER concluded that further expansion of the academies programme by the government would require the following factors to justify it:

  • a clearly articulated theory of change
  • the right evidence
  • evaluation
  • sufficient capacity
  • accountability

Given the reaction to the Budget’s announcement, it can be assumed that most are of the opinion that the government has not yet managed to provide sufficient justification for its decision.


Further reading from our blog on the English education system: