After weeks of controversy and parliamentary outcry, the Department for Education has pulled a surprising about-face and withdrawn their plans to forcibly turn all schools into academies, despite education secretary Nicky Morgan’s previous assertion that there would be “no reverse gear” on the reforms. The suddenness with which the academisation policy was announced and the narrow timeframe given for the conversion of schools (the deadline was set for 2022) alarmed headteachers and local authorities and set off a wave of protest in the teaching community, but it is unclear whether or not the government’s backtracking is in direct response to their criticism.
Although the Conservative cabinet have championed academies, party backbenchers and Conservative-led local authorities opposed the plans, in part because many rural schools would have to close or be merged with other, potentially quite distant schools by efficiency-minded academy chains.
Nevertheless, while many are celebrating this announcement (not least the Labour shadow cabinet), the government still remains committed to academies in the long term, and plans remain in place for the forcible academisation of certain schools. The 2022 deadline is gone, but under the new plans the DfE will be able to force “underperforming” local-authority schools to become academies. It is still unclear quite what constitutes an “underperforming” local authority, but there are claims that there is political motivation behind the council evaluation, with the vast majority of failing authorities being under Labour control.
As ever, there is no guarantee that the government’s plans will remain unchanged, and there is always the potential for another surprise reversal. Nevertheless, while the government holds its breath for the EU referendum on June 23rd it seems unlikely that we will see any dramatic or controversial announcements from the DfE. After the referendum, when the government is a little surer of its standing and no longer needs to woo potentially-rebellious backbenchers, it is quite possible that Nicky Morgan and the DfE will return to the subject of academisation, and that they may be less inclined to compromise this time around.