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Education reform - in the fast lane!

Adrian Shardlow from Browne Jacobson examines how academy reform will continue after the General Election

Posted by Stephanie Broad | June 03, 2015 | People, policy, politics

David Cameron’s cabinet reshuffle in July 2014 included the intriguing decision to remove Michael Gove as Education Secretary and replace him with Nicky Morgan, a relatively new MP having been first elected only four years previously. At the time, Michael Gove’s academies programme was well underway, with the majority of secondary schools having converted and primary schools starting to convert in numbers after a slow start.  The change to a Secretary of State with a less confrontational style, an apparent willingness to listen to teachers, and importantly, very little rhetoric about academies and free schools led many to wonder whether the Conservative Party would pursue the academies programme with the same level of commitment and vigour after the General Election.

The Conservative Party Manifesto, however, indicated a willingness to continue the conversion and free schools programme by announcing that, in addition to protecting school funding (at a flat rate), and training additional maths and physics teachers, a Conservative government would turn every failing and coasting secondary school into an academy. The manifesto promised to open at least 500 free schools and to introduce new powers to force coasting schools to accept new leadership.

It went on to say that any school Ofsted judged to be requiring improvement will be taken over by the best head teachers, backed by expert sponsors or by high performing neighbouring schools, unless it could demonstrate that it had a plan to improve rapidly.  The implication at that time was that only coasting secondary schools would be challenged, as there was no reference to primary schools. Few would have predicted an outright Conservative election win and how this policy would be developed and implemented in such an eventuality.

The Education and Adoptions Bill (the Bill) announced in The Queen’s Speech has now made it clear that the Government intends to drive forward aggressively with the conversion programme by removing barriers and impediments to speedy conversions. All coasting schools will be dealt with, not just secondary schools. 

Dealing firstly with schools graded by Ofsted as inadequate, the Bill would speed up intervention and make it clear that they must become academies. In interviews, Nicky Morgan has said the DfE would be looking to introduce powers to overrule objections from councils and to ensure that orders over the fate of failing schools take precedence. There is clearly a will to sweep up failing schools into academy sponsorship arrangements without having to deal with objections from interested parties. This intention is reinforced by the proposal to remove the current requirement for all schools to carry out a consultation before converting to academy status.

Perhaps the most eagerly awaited clarification was around coasting schools and whether this would apply to all schools in the ‘Requires Improvement’ category, given the comments in the Manifesto and that there are approximately 3,300 schools currently graded as requiring improvement. There is currently no definition of ‘coasting’. However, Nicky Morgan has made it clear that the term would not only apply to a particular Ofsted grading.  Powers would be given to Regional Schools Commissioners to look at progress measures, Ofsted reports and school improvement plans. They would also speak with the school leadership before deciding whether intervention is necessary.  We eagerly await the drafting of the Bill to see how these dramatic changes will be brought into effect.

Although the Conservative Party Manifesto highlighted an intention to protect school funding, drive up standards in literacy and numeracy and increase the number of maths and physics teachers it is the desire to force about change in school structures that has grabbed the headlines. I have no doubt this will occupy the minds of governors and school leaders alike in the coming months.

Adrian Shardlow is a partner in the education team at Browne Jacobson, dealing with all areas of education law including advisory work, public law, admissions, special needs and setting up Academies under the Academies Act 2010.

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