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Blog: The Education Secretary’s plans to force all schools to become academies has hit a brick wall

Lucy has written for The Times Redbox blog on the opposition day debate yesterday on forced academisation and the cross-party consensus with Conservative backbenchers against these plans. 

Opposition Day debates are generally lively and when you’re on the Opposition benches at times all you hear is a wall of noise. Yesterday, as I set out the arguments as to why the government’s plan to force all primary and secondary schools to become academies, with the expectation that they are put into multi-academy chains, I was taken back by the amount of nodding in agreement from the benches opposite.

There had been plenty of reports in the media of the perfectly reasonable concerns of Conservative MPs about the government’s forced ‘academisation’ plans. However, given the theatre of an opposition day debate and the fact that this is a flagship government policy, the level of concern and opposition expressed by Conservative MPs was unprecedented.

Time and time again, MPs on all sides of the House got up to raise concerns about the plans to force schools into academy chains. By the end of the session, it had become obvious that the government does not have enough support to get these plans as they stand through Parliament. Whilst the government defeated our motion it was a pyrrhic victory. I counted 13 Conservative MPs with strong concerns. With a slim Commons majority of 12 this will send a chill down Ministers’ spines.   

So whilst the government may have won the motion yesterday, it is clear they have lost the argument.

There is cross-party consensus on the main areas of concern with the forced academisation plans. Today Lord Baker, a reformer and architect of past Conservative Education policy has joined the growing number of people with serious concerns about these plans. Ministers are unable to explain why already good and outstanding schools should be forced into an academy chain, against the will of school leaders, teachers, parents and local communities. There were wide-ranging concerns about the impact of forced mass academisation on the primary sector where only 17 per-cent of schools are already academies and of the remaining schools over 80 per-cent are already good or outstanding. Concerns were also raised about how small rural schools will fare given that multi-academy trusts are unlikely to want to take on remote rural schools, which often have tight and precarious finances because of the nature of provision. On parent governors, the Education Secretary flat-refused to admit that the White Paper expressly removes the requirement for academy trusts to have parent governors on their governing bodies, despite it being there in black and white.

What is increasingly clear from the debate yesterday, is that Ministers do not have the support of the House to push these controversial plans through. Reasonable argument from all sides was met with stonewalling from Ministers. Neither Labour nor Conservative backbenchers are against academies per se. They have an important role to play as part of a suite of school improvement measures for failing and coasting schools. Yet during three hours of debate on the white paper proposals yesterday, the government frontbench singularly failed to explain why forcing this approach on good and outstanding schools and cutting out local communities and parents from the oversight and management of schools, at an extortionate cost of £1.3 billion at a time when school budgets are falling, is necessary.

I’ll continue to work with colleagues from across the House of build a considered alternative to these plans, which focuses on raising standards and supporting all schools to improve, rather than pitting one type of school against another, in a misguided value judgement which doesn’t serve pupils or parents. 

Whilst Ministers may be fixated on school structures at the expense of standards, it is clear that backbench members of the Conservative Parliamentary Party have reasonable and correct concerns about these plans. Ministers need to go back to the drawing board and respect these views, rather than ploughing on regardless. The government has plenty of time to take stock, after all this is a White Paper, not draft legislation. Ministers’ expectation would be to publish legislation at the Queens speech in May. Judging from yesterday's debate, such legislation is going to need a serious rethink if it is to make it on the statute book. 

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