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The government's attempt to show it hasn't run out of ideas for education smacks of a costly, unnecessary re-organisation of schools which nobody wants

First published in the Times RedBox, 17.03.2016

“The biggest education reforms in a decade”, as they’ve been billed this week, and today’s Education White Paper, are an obvious attempt by the government, and George Osborne in particular, to show they’ve not run out of steam on public services and a bid to excite the Tory faithful.  Why then was the Chancellor’s announcement that all schools will be forced into an academy met without even a cheer in the Chamber yesterday, with outright hostility by Conservative local government leaders, and with barely any notable support on the airwaves? 

The answer is quite simple:  it’s a bad policy which nobody wants.

The Prime Minister and Chancellor seem locked into a tired political device that to be seen as a true reformer you must embark on a massive reorganisation which puts competition over collaboration and autonomy over support.  In education, all the evidence tells us the reverse is the case.

Indeed the evidence that wholesale academisation will raise standards simply doesn’t exist.  The Tory-led Education Select Committee recently concluded 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 at present no convincing evidence of the impact of academy status on attainment in primary schools.”

While turning a school into an academy as part of a wider package of school improvement measures can work, there are just as many, if not more examples, of where it hasn’t.  There’s no escaping the reality that many of the schools and areas, such as Doncaster, Darlington, North Lincs and Swindon, where standards are not good enough are already all academies.  Today’s White Paper says little about what next for these schools and meanwhile those now responsible for academies will have their attention switched to converting already highly performing schools instead.  It’s nonsense.

Most of the schools which will be affected by its forced academisation programme are highly performing primary schools.  As the devastating comments from the Tory Leader of the Local Government Association put it, “Ofsted has rated 82 per cent of council maintained schools as good or outstanding, so it defies reason that councils are being portrayed as barriers to improvement. Ofsted has not only identified that improvement in secondary schools - most of which are academies - has stalled, but it has praised strong improvement in primary schools, most of which are maintained.”

If George Osborne really wanted to be the champion of the next generation and equipping them for the future world of work, he should be focussed on the real issues facing education:  teacher shortages - particularly in the key subjects of maths, English and science, of a crisis in school places, of a widening attainment gap between the disadvantaged and the rest, and exam chaos with the new SATs and GCSEs not yet finalised with only weeks to go.

The focus on maths is welcome but with a chronic shortage of maths teachers it’s undeliverable and the recent findings of the OECD about our maths curriculum (which Ministers have constantly fiddled with) gives major pause for thought.

In this challenging context, to ask school leaders to take time away from educating our children to spend time and money, mainly on lawyers, to convert to an academy is irresponsible.  As with the costly and disrupting re-organisation of the NHS, the government will live to regret this approach, but unfortunately it will be our kids who pay the price.


Lucy Powell MP is Labour’s Shadow Secretary of State for Education

First published in the Times RedBox, 17.03.2016


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