CHECK AGAINST DELIVERY
Thank you Mr Speaker/Mr Deputy Speaker.
I am pleased that we’ve been able to secure this debate following the Government’s School’s White Paper, which has caused much concern amongst parents, communities, heads, teachers and others.
The main, and most controversial, proposal is to force all schools to become academies and the vast majority into multi-academy trusts or chains by 2022.
It is this proposal which we have focussed today’s debate on because we believe these plans are deeply flawed, are not supported by evidence, have caused huge disruption in schools already, and notably seem to have very few supporters. There is a growing alliance of those with concerns – including members opposite, local government leaders, as well as leading head teacher unions like the NAHT and ASCL.
It is my intention that today’s debate be used as an opportunity to air such concerns and I hope that the Secretary of State will listen carefully, not plough on regardless, but put these plans on hold.
There are elements of the White Paper that we can support – like the Independent College of Teaching. However, the main thrust of forced, wholesale academisation we cannot support.
Overview - Forced Academisation
The Government’s plan has been met with such concern, even by the very school leaders they claim to be supporting, because it is a bad policy, with no evidence base.
It is yet another policy from this Government that obsesses with structures, instead of standards.
What’s more, given the very real pressures being faced by schools today – huge teacher shortages, real terms cuts to school budgets for the first time in 20 years, major overhauls to curriculums, assessments and exams – the idea that heads should be spending time, money, and energy on a £1.3 billion top-down reorganisation of our schools system is at best a distraction, and at worst will have a very damaging impact on standards.
The Tories’ obsession with school structures has completely missed the point. Just as there are some excellent academies, there are some excellent community schools, there are some poor academies and some poor community schools.
No type of school has a monopoly on excellence. We need to build an education system that provides an excellent education for all children, rather than pitting one type of school against another.
Nearly a month has passed since the Chancellor made the announcement, yet still we have yet to hear any answers to the question, “Why?”
When schools that want to become academies can already do so, and schools that the government deems failing or coasting can already be put into an academy chain, why force all others?
This is not about school improvement, nor is it about autonomy and freedoms. The Multi-Academy Trust model is in its infancy with real questions emerging about accountability, probity, capacity and, for some, standards.
[It leads me to the conclusion that this is an ideologically-driven agenda from a government which has run out of ideas.]
Let’s look at the Government’s arguments in turn. Firstly, school improvement. Let’s look at the evidence.
The vast majority of schools, which will be affected by the policy will be primary schools, where only 17% are already academies. Of those which are not, over 80% are already rated good or outstanding.
In secondary, where over two-thirds of schools are already academies, there are more failing academies than non-academies. In places where school improvement remains a very real concern, like Doncaster, Bexley, and North East Lincolnshire for example, all the secondary schools are already academies.
Just today Ofsted have reported that the performance of secondary schools in Reading is “not strong”. 8 out of 10 secondary schools in Reading are already academies and are directly accountable to the Secretary of State. Why has she failed to improve these academies and what is the government’s school improvement strategy here?
The Government claims that there are more children in good or outstanding schools today, as proof that academisation itself leads to school improvement. However, the Secretary of State knows that she’s being selective with her figures. The truth is that the vast majority of those good and outstanding places are in primary schools, where academisation is limited. Moreover, according to Ofsted the number of pupils in inadequate secondary schools has risen by a staggering 60% over the last four years – where academisation has taken hold.
So, not for the first time, the Government’s selective use of statistics, and dubious links between cause and effect, do not withstand any scrutiny.
Perhaps, Mr Speaker, that’s why the Conservative-majority Education Select Committee recently concluded, after an extensive inquiry, that “current evidence does not allow us to draw conclusions on whether academies in themselves are a positive force for change”, and that, “there is no convincing evidence of the impact of academy status on attainment…”
And whilst the Sutton Trust found some excellence in a small number of academy chains, the majority were underperforming.
Not only is this forced academisation programme evidently not about school improvement, the Government’s drive towards it could greatly diminish what capacity there is in the system for school improvement.
The Regional School Commissioners, their officials, the energies of school leaders and local authorities will now, as we are already hearing, shift almost entirely away from schools that need improvement, to creating trusts and changing the legal status of a huge number of schools, most of which are already performing well.
Indeed, School Commissioners and the Department for Education haven’t even yet acquired the powers they sought from Parliament in the Education and Adoption Act – they will get those on Monday – to put more schools, which they deem as coasting, into academy chains.
So was that piece of legislation a complete waste of time?
Autonomy and freedom
I will return to some of the very real concerns about the performance of academy chains shortly, but before I do I want to first look at another of the Government’s arguments for forced academisation: that it is about autonomy and freedoms.
This is a Government which says it is for choice in education. Choice? What choice is there in a one-size fits all policy?
What is autonomous about forcing a highly performing school into an academy chain?
Can she promise that every outstanding school leader, who wants to remain as they are, will do so? No she can’t.
What about the small village schools which the White Paper makes clear can’t be stand-alone academies – where will their autonomy be?
Perhaps that’s why even one of the Secretary of State’s main allies, Toby Young, described this policy as “Stalinist.”
The curriculum and other freedoms which the government describes, first of all could be given to all schools without needing a change to legal status. But, in any case, she and I both know that the “autonomy” the Tories say they are giving just does not exist.
Over the past five years, we’ve seen parts of the curriculum personally drafted by the Education Secretary and then circulated for sign-off amongst Cabinet Ministers. This sort of ‘Ministerial diktat’ on the curriculum puts schools in a straightjacket.
In fact what we are actually seeing with ‘academisation’ is a further narrowing of curriculums, as schools aim to improve their Ofsted judgements on an increasingly narrow set of measurements.
So while the origins of the academy programme was about bringing new partners and innovation into the system, a wholesale academisation programme will undoubtedly create an increasingly sclerotic and one-dimensional system.
It’s no wonder that the Chief Executive of England’s largest academy chain, AET, recently admitted that there is in fact less autonomy for schools in multi-academy trusts than there is for local authority schools.
Multi-Academy Trusts system
That brings me to the evidence for, and performance of, multi-academy trusts, MATs or chains, as they are better known.
It may come as a surprise to many Members Opposite that the Government’s Free School and Academy agenda has quietly but significantly shifted in policy and practice away from standalone academies, to a MAT or chain model. This shift was made absolutely clear in the Government’s White Paper, where the policy preference is emphatically for schools to become part of chains and groups of schools.
Indeed the DfE guidance issued yesterday said, and I quote, “we expect that most schools will form or join MATs as they become academies.”
There is evidence that schools do better working collaboratively with other clusters of schools especially where they are clustered geographically – as many do within local authority areas.
The evidence of the performance of chains so far, is mixed. There are some notably good academy chains, but there are many more than are not good. Of the 850 current MATs or chains, only 20 have been assessed, and just three have proved more effective than non-academies.
The Chief Inspector for Schools, Sir Michael Wilshaw, only a week before the Budget wrote to the Secretary of State highlighting “serious weaknesses” in academy chains. He went on to say that in many cases, “academy chains are worse than the worst performing local authorities they seek to replace”. To continue with forced academisation of all schools after such a damning letter is frankly irresponsible.
There are major questions for the government here too on capacity. Academy chains are in their infancy and clearly require a closer look, yet the government want them to take on thousands more schools. Maybe that’s why she can’t rule out that poorly performing chains won’t be given otherwise good schools under these proposals.
One of the main reasons that the track record of many chains isn’t good, is because there is a dearth of any real oversight or accountability.
I share concerns expressed by many Members from across the House, including my near neighbour, the Member for Altrincham and Sale West, when he says we are in danger of creating distant, unaccountable bureaucracies for schools.
That the Department for Education, via its small group of Schools Commissioners, can provide robust oversight and accountability of all schools in the country, is frankly for the birds. It’s an impossible job. It’s also not desirable.
The Secretary of State seems hell-bent on cutting out communities and cutting out parents from having any say over how their child’s school is run.
First, let’s take the Tories’ plan to scrap the requirement for parents to sit on governing bodies. Abolishing parent governors and removing any role for parents in choosing whether and what type of academy their child’s school becomes, has unsurprisingly been met with huge outcry.
I understand the Secretary of State wants to take this opportunity to clarify that parents can still be governors. But as she well knows, there will be no requirement any more under her plans for governing bodies to have them. I don’t think this is the kind of clarification parents are looking for. Perhaps she might want to go further?
In any case, she and I both know that in a world of academy chains the role of the individual school governing body is greatly diminished and key decisions are taken by the two new levels above this – the Board of Trustees and the Member Board, bodies which are all too often appointed by the Head or the Chief Executive they are supposed to be holding to account.
If we want to avoid more of the scandals we’ve seen, like at Perry Beaches, Kings Science Academy, and E-ACT, and if schools are genuinely to be held to account, then we need a much more robust governance regime than remote Trustee Boards appointed by their Executive, held only to account by a Regional School Commissioner, who is responsible for overseeing thousands of schools.
There are also very real issues on the ground about accountability and responsibility for excluded children, placing children with SEN and admission policies. All of which have got very real problems in the Tories’ fragmented schools system.
Such a system of oversight also needs to have recourse to the needs of the local community. We cannot have a situation where the needs of the local area are not considered, such as the case of Knowsley, where the last A-level provision across the entire borough is about to be lost based on a decision taken by one school alone.
There has to be a better joined-up approach to school improvement and local oversight that involves school leaders, councils, and parents as well.
For a government claiming to lead the “Devolution Revolution” their centralisation of schools from the mix is wrong-headed and contradictory.
In places like my own of Greater Manchester, the Chancellor talks of releasing the Combined Authority and Elected Mayor to create a Northern Powerhouse. That the skills and education of the next generation are being taken away at the same time, shows what a sham this project is.
Costs and Funding
So, Mr Speaker, this leads me to the one last argument the Government makes – that it would be simpler to have one funding system.
This is a nonsense argument and certainly doesn’t support the £1.3 billion reorganisation of the schools system that is being proposed. It is disingenuous of the government to link these proposals to the Fair Funding consultation too.
There is broad support for a fairer funding model – as long as deprived areas and areas which require improvement don’t lose out – and forcing all schools to become academies does not need to be linked with this. We have for decades had a multi-faceted funding arrangement for our schools. There is no real reason this can’t continue.
To summarise, the proposal to force all schools to become academies and part of academy chains, is a costly, reorganisation, which schools don’t want or need.
At a time when heads are dealing with some very real and big challenges – teacher shortages, significant real terms cuts to their budgets, flux and chaos in assessment, and insufficient school places – to ask them to take time out to change their legal status and to become an academy against their wish is wrong, and will impact on standards.
This agenda is not about school improvement – most of the schools affected are already good or outstanding. It is not about more autonomy or more choice, as a one-size fits all approach is being forced all schools. It is not about parents, as they are being cut out of the picture. It isn’t about devolution, but centralisation. And there are real and very serious concerns about capacity, oversight and accountability under her plans.
There is a growing alliance of heads, governors, parents, teachers, politicians from all parties, and many of the original advocates of the academy programme, against forced, wholesale academisation.
Yet this government – the government which used to say they were all for choice, the government which professes to be about standards, the government which claims it is on the side of parents and schools – seems to be ploughing on regardless without a single coherent argument to support them, nor a shred of credible evidence.
They do still have time to listen, to pause, to reflect, and today’s debate gives them a chance to do just that.
I commend this motion to the House.