Farewell then, the school-led system?

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

The Schools Bill currently passing through Parliament will be the beginning of the end of any real sense of autonomy for our schools, says Dr Mary Bousted

The Schools Bill currently having its first reading in the House of Lords makes, in parts, for surprising reading. Some of its proposed measures have been well trailed – for example the government’s drive to have all schools in “families of trusts”.

In the White Paper which preceded the Bill, the drive to academise all schools by 2030 is framed as an invitation. In the Bill, however, a “you can if you want to” is transformed into a “we have powers to make you do so” through the introduction of radical new powers which will enable local authorities to request that their maintained schools are forced to join a multi-academy trust with only a nod to consultation which does not include staff at the school nor parents.

In effect, the Bill will mean that a maintained school could be forced into academy status, whatever the governing body or community thinks – and the decision to change a school’s status can be made without reference to the quality of education it provides.

It is clear that ministers have learned lessons from the disastrous drive by a previous secretary of state for education, Nicky Morgan, who in her 2016 White Paper Education excellence everywhere declared that all schools would be academised.

She failed to achieve this aim because the opposition to her proposals was strongest in the Tory shires who resented their schools being taken away from them. Blue on blue conflict, something the current government is very keen to avoid, ensued and ensured that Ms Morgan’s best laid plans were laid aside.

This time, and learning lessons from the past, the Bill puts the onus on local authorities, working with the regional schools director, to broker which schools will join which MATs.

Local authorities will have a strong voice in decision-making about which trusts should run their schools. It is a clever move by ministers – involving local authorities in the means to achieve their ends. And it will ratchet up pressure both on maintained schools and single academies who have so far resisted the siren call of the MATs.

But for a government which has, for the past 12 years, in coalition and governing alone, championed and trumpeted the “freedom” and “autonomy” of England’s school system, the biggest surprise in the Schools Bill is the extent to which the secretary of state has declared his intention to wrest back control of schools.

The first clause of the Bill lists the extensive powers that the secretary of state will have to determine a school’s curriculum; the nature and quality of education provided; the length of the school day, year, school terms and school holiday periods; the nature and quality of education provided; premises land and accommodation; the quality of leadership and management – and the list goes on.

It is, I think, unsurprising that the nature and extent of the powers given to the secretary of state in this list has been greeted with outrage and considerable concern by school leaders who were unprepared for the government to abandon its previous commitment to a school-led system.

In my mind there is no doubt that the number and seriousness of previous financial and governance standards in some MATs have embarrassed and frustrated ministers who have appeared to be unable to hold rogue operators to account.

A clear determination to wrest back control is signalled in the Bill, and any real sense of autonomy – about a school’s governance in general and the ways in which it is run in particular – is hugely diminished as the government embarks upon its drive to centralise the administration and running of schools.

  • Dr Mary Bousted is the joint general secretary of the National Education Union.

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