15 Mar 2016

Academies for all – whether you want them or not

The abolition of non-academy schools has been well-trailed but this is quite a moment nonetheless.

Academies were originally unveiled sixteen years ago as remedial special arrangements for schools in difficulty. Under the government’s plans to be unveiled tomorrow, we jump from 200 schools at the start of the Coalition government to all 20,000 schools, primary and secondary, becoming academies by 2022.

It marks the end of a system of devolved, local accountability for schools that can be traced back to 1870 but which in truth had been in decline for some time. It all started with local school boards with tax raising powers running these classrooms. In 1902 those powers were passed on to county and city councils.

Councils haven’t been “running” or “controlling” schools in any meaningful sense for a while. They supervise and provide back-up services in areas like special needs. Even the amount of money they pass on to individual schools is determined centrally.

Without council involvement, teaching unions say, a giant step has been made towards centralisation. They also say that the government is ripping up the national teacher pay awards as the early academy pioneers were awarded power to set their own pay. They question whether academy chains are up to the job.

The government will say that the evidence that academies work is already compelling and that the timescale will allow heads to get necessary skills, governors too.

The next decade will see if they are right.

Tomorrow we may discover quite why George Osborne is announcing this policy as part of a Budget conventionally reserved for fiscal matters. Is there not enough in the box to excite? Is there a sense that the government, with two purdah sessions for local elections and the referendum, doesn’t have enough activity lined up?

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