The new authoritarian Conservative Britain

Henry Stewart's picture
It is June 2017. The Chair of Governors of Hadesmead comprehensive makes a public statement with a hard hitting critique of government policy. The Education Secretary asks one of her advisers to check the school data. She finds that, while some of the progress is good, there are some categories in which it could be better. Hadesmead is added to the next list of "coasting" schools, to be forced to become an academy. She also chooses a sponsor for them and states that they must convert within 3 months.

The governors of Hadesmead know that staff and parents will not want the school to become an academy and, knowing the school is strong and improving, start to prepare their case. The local authority, though Conservative controlled, is supportive and would like them to stay in the family of maintained schools.

But then the lawyers are consulted. They make clear that, under the 2015 Education and Adoption Bill, the governors cannot challenge the ruling. Indeed both the governing body and the local authority are legally required, whether or not they believe it is in the interests of their children, to support the change. Further they are legally bound to not only support academisation but to agree to the proposed sponsor, employ the consultant specified by the Secretary of State and work to the timetable that she has dictated.

Sound far fetched? This is exactly what the new Bill enables. The Bill has been promoted by the DfE as speeding up conversion and over-riding opposition.  A coasting school is defined as one which has been "notified that the Secretary of State considers the school to be coasting". It goes on to say that the SoS "may by regulation define what "coasting" means" but that definition (which only "may" happen) is likely to come after the Bill is voted into law. Currently a coasting school is simply one which the Education Minister says is coasting.

The Governing Body must support forced academisation

Clause 10, the "duty to facilitate conversion", places specific requirements on the Governing Body to support it:

"The new section provides that where a school is the subject of an Academy order under section 4(A1) or (1)(b), the governing body and its relevant local authority must work towards the school’s successful conversion into an Academy by taking all reasonable steps necessary to that end."   

It goes on to make clear that the governing Body must also support whichever sponsor the SoS has chosen:

"43 New section 5B also says that if a sponsor has been identified with a view to the sponsor entering into Academy arrangements with the Secretary of State to run the school as an Academy, and the Secretary of State has notified the school that the Secretary of State is minded to enter into academy arrangements with that person, the governing body must take all reasonable steps to facilitate the making of Academy arrangements with that particular sponsor."

In addition Clause 4 can require a Governing Body to employ a "specified person" as an adviser. Clause 11 states that the Secretary of State can dictate to the   Governing Body the specific steps they must take and the timeframe within which they must take them.

An infringement of democractic rights?

During the last Government, we were constantly told that schools thrived when given autonomy.  But the Government is proposing removing the freedom of governing bodies and LAs to do what they believe is best for their individual schools.  This isn't freedom. It is removal of democratic rights.

The government talks about local parents "obstructing" the process of imposing an academy sponsor. Others would describe this as parents exercising their rights in a democratic society. Moreover it is a very specific change, a law to prevent objection to a specific government policy and one, as I have noted here and here, which has little evidence for it.

The clause also forces governors and local authorities to work with the sponsor chosen by the Secretary of State.  They will have no choice of sponsor but will have one imposed upon them.  Again, this is not freedom.  It is one person, the Secretary of State, making arbitrary decisions regardless of the wishes of governors, schools staff, parents and local authorities.  It is rule by central diktat.

This bill furthers the centralisation of education started by Michael Gove. It seeks to remove some of the local autonomy that still exists. It removes existing democratic rights and accountabilities. It It is surely, dare I say it, an attack on "British values".

The issue of "coasting" schools

On Twitter, @km3pt141592653 asked "You're talking as if there aren't institutions that don't fit into this category?" It's a good question. Yes, there clearly are schools that to improve and need help to do so. However that does not mean that the solution is forced academisation, and the current centralisation of education actually makes dealing with struggling schools more difficult.

A good local authority knows far better than the distant Secretary of State, or the new Regional Comissioners, which schools should - given their intake and local circumstances - be doing better. I know of two Directors of Childrens Services that have contacted the DfE to raise concerns about academies in their area that they feel should be getting better results. In both cases the response was that, as the schools were above the DfE's floor targets, they were not a priority.

The Assistant Director of Education of a Yorkshire authority told a conference last year that she had written to the DfE about the fact that most of the local secondaries had been converted to academies and had seen their results fall. Eight weeks on she had not even received a reply. (She addressed this question to Michael Wilshaw, who asked to be sent a copy of the email. "You were copied in on the original email" was the response.)

There are schools, often highly regarded by local parents, that should - given their intake - be achieving better results. However the best answer to this would be for local authorities to be able to bring their local expertise to bear and play a role, even with academies. (For example, a right for LAs to call in Ofsted would be a powerful negotiating tool.) Increased centralisation and erosion of local democratic rights are a step backwards, not forwards, in enabling school improvement.


[Addendum: Some have questioned whether the new Bill makes the initial scenario possible, or whether it just streamlines academy orders for "Inadequate" schools. However the press release talks of converting 1,000 skills and less than 500 maintained schools are currently rated Inadequate.

Analysis, from legal education experts Browne Jacobson, states that being a "coasting" school makes a school " eligible for intervention" and that being "eligible for intervention" gives"the power for the Secretary to State to make an academy order in respect of that school". We cannot know how much the SoS wisll use this power but it means the scenario at the start of this post is entirely possible under the Bill.]

Note: My thanks to Schools Week for highlighting key parts of the bill and to my colleague Janet Downs, whose well written words I have borrowed in the section on democratic rights.
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Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 05/06/2015 - 13:01

Henry - Section 4 of the Bill, Power to require governing body to enter into arrangements, says schools 'eligible for intervention' MUST enter into contracts with a 'specified person' who will provide advice. This implies the school can't choose who they work with but must have a 'specified person' foisted on them. It also requires governors to 'take specified steps' to enter a Federation . The section also says the SoS should 'consult' with Governing Bodies before exercising powers given to the SoS by the Bill. Whether this is consultation in the true spirit of consultation with each side having equal respect and influence is unclear.

Re 'coasting'. The Bill says 'The Secretary of State may by regulations define what “coasting” means in relation to a school for the purposes of subsection.'

This appears to allow the SoS to define 'coasting'. She 'may' (or may not) lay down this definition in 'regulations'. However, the phrase 'in relation to a school' is ambiguous. Does 'a school' imply all schools? Or would one definition apply to 'a [single] school' but not others which could be deemed 'coasting' according to different criteria?

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 05/06/2015 - 13:08

This Bill doesn't seem to chime either with the Localism agenda (perhaps that's now gone by the wayside) or British Values rhetoric. Democracy is one of these much-trumpeted values, but in new Gov't newspeak it appears to mean the right to agree with what the Gov't mandates.

But in the mad world of Morgan, her imposed cure isn't fail safe - it doesn't always work and, as we keep pointing out, there are more effective (and cheaper) methods to improve struggling schools (NAO) and academy conversion isn't the only remedy (Ed Select Committee 2015).

agov's picture
Fri, 05/06/2015 - 16:32

Does this mean the 'Big Society' was a meaningless slogan? Surely not.

[Reply test03]

Patrick Hadley's picture
Fri, 05/06/2015 - 18:58

The legal understanding of "consult" is this: The Secretary of State must hear from the governors, but she does not have to listen to them. As long as she has given them adequate time to make their views known before a final decision is made, she does not have to take any notice at all of anything they say.

The definition of "coasting" will be laid down in Statutory Instruments, which are written by the civil servants at the request of the minister, and are just "nodded through" parliament usually without any debate. It will certainly be possible for a SoS to change these to make more schools fall under the definition, but there would be unlikely to be a change just so that an individual school is included.

Janet Downs's picture
Sat, 06/06/2015 - 08:19

Patrick - is it likely the definition of 'coasting' could be so wide as to be a very wide net?

… The Swedish experience of the neo-liberal experiment in national education policy adds to the evidence base. In Sweden the national government at least appears to be recognising the mistake. Not so here in the UK or in the US where evidence of failure is more likely to be interpreted as being the result of policies not being applied with sufficient rigour. Hence the intention of the new Conservative government in the UK to create a thousand more privatised Academy  schools and new Free Schools, all supported by the state. Growing opposition by parents, school governors and local councils is to be overcome by passing draconian new laws. …

… report is adapted with thanks from ‘The new authoritarian Conservative Britain’ by Henry Stewart, 6 June, on the Local Schools Network, a website which carries regular critical …

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