Schools are having a hard time. Teachers and other staff, the majority of whom are unvaccinated, continue to go to work every day in crowded buildings, surrounded by children who have also not been jabbed. While Covid rates are currently low, teenagers had the highest infection rate of any age group in December. Given the possibility that such a scenario could repeat itself, teachers deserve praise for their commitment.
Instead, the education secretary, Gavin Williamson, has decided to undermine them. His announcement that he wants all schools in England to become academies was presumably not calculated to demoralise schools that are currently maintained by councils. But it is hard to see how it could have any other effect, particularly given that it comes out of the blue. His party’s 2019 manifesto promised to ensure “every school is a great school”. It said nothing about forcing existing schools out of local control and into that of multi-academy trusts.
The manifesto was right. Mr Williamson is wrong. Investment is the key to improving outcomes and experiences of education. Membership of a multi-academy trust is not the performance-enhancing fix that it was once claimed to be. All the evidence shows this, as Mr Williamson knows. Some multi-academy trusts are successful. Others are not. Good governance supporting outstanding teaching – which should be the overriding aim of everyone involved in education – is not achieved by turning schools into quasi-businesses.
Indeed, some problems are made worse by academies. In 2019, the Department for Education (DfE) wrote to 94 trusts asking them to justify high pay for executives and headteachers. Academies have lost proportionally more pupils than maintained schools to the practice known as “off-rolling”, whereby children leave schools without being formally excluded. On exclusions too, some chains have a shocking record. In 2016-17, nine schools run by Outwood Grange Academies Trust in Yorkshire excluded at least 20% of their pupils. Given the lack of objective justification for further upheavals, and the atrocious timing, it is hard to divine any rationale for Mr Williamson’s actions beyond politically motivated attention-seeking.
There are many useful things that the man in charge of English schools and nurseries could be doing as exam season approaches. One is developing arrangements for how this year’s teacher-awarded grades are to be moderated. By leaving decisions up to schools – which will rely on a combination of tests and coursework – ministers have outsourced an extremely delicate process. The House of Commons education select committee has warned of the potential for a “wild west” of inconsistency and grade inflation. Headteachers are rightly nervous. The DfE should offer support and clear guidance, including on how challenges to grades are to be handled.
Mr Williamson ought also to take an interest in discussions about plans to vaccinate children aged 12 and over. Then there is the impact of the pandemic on the early years sector, and the effect of a decision to alter the pupil premium funding timetable, which has reduced the budgets of schools with the most disadvantaged pupils. Rising awareness of the extent of sexual harassment and racism faced by young people is also creating new challenges for schools, including how to deal with allegations about events that have taken place elsewhere.
Half of all schools are academies but many councils, including Conservative ones, continue to run schools very well. For primaries, many of which serve small areas, the local connection can be an asset, not a drag. That Mr Williamson could find nothing more original to do, in a tumultuous week, than read from an old script about full academisation, speaks volumes. It is the DfE, not maintained schools, that needs a change.