Schools Bill U-turn is another fine mess

By Geoff Barton
General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders.  

By any assessment, full academisation – with every school part of a multi-academy trust - is a hugely complex undertaking. 

It would be very regrettable then if legislation drawn up at the outset of this process was such a dog’s dinner that large sections had to be withdrawn and revised after the very first phase of parliamentary scrutiny.

And yet, astonishingly, this is exactly what has happened with the government removing clauses 1-18 of the Schools Bill following heavy fire from members of the House of Lords ranging across the political spectrum. 

It is the most inauspicious of starts imaginable for a project which requires care and precision if it is to have the remotest chance of success.

The problem for the current government is that it has inherited the messy system cobbled together by previous administrations. 

That is an education landscape which comprises multi-academy trusts of varying shapes and sizes, as well as single academy trusts, and local authority-maintained schools – all in different numbers in different parts of the country. Nobody would ever have devised such an incoherent system. It’s the product of overturning the apple cart and seeing what happens.

What it has left is a hotchpotch of oversight run by an array of often overlapping organisations – regional schools commissioners, Ofsted, local authorities, the Education Skills and Funding Agency – depending on what type of school you run. 

Then there is the problem of how all this joins up in terms of transition from primary to secondary to sixth form, and how to harness collaboration rather than competition in a system which encourages competition.

The government’s answer is to academise all schools and shoehorn them into multi-academy trusts by 2030 – an arbitrary target date for completion of a process which is incredibly complicated and difficult. You may agree with the principle, or disagree with it, or not be convinced in either direction, but what is not in doubt is the myriad issues which need to be sorted out in order for it to happen.

So, this is the context in which the Schools Bill was introduced. The immediate problem is that on the very first page it set out a series of powers that the Education Secretary would have over academies. 

The idea is that this would be a common rule book rather than the array of funding agreements which currently govern the running of trusts. The trouble is that the list of powers is extraordinary. It ranges from “the spiritual, moral, social and cultural development of pupils” to “the length of the school day, the school year, school terms or school holiday periods” to “the procedures and criteria for appointing staff and assigning them particular roles.”

Peers in the House of Lords detected a power grab. Whatever the intention of the Bill, it would certainly represent an incredible centralisation of power in Whitehall over matters which common sense would suggest are operational decisions best left to the education professionals employed to run schools. 

Which brings us up to date with the government’s decision to abandon this section of the Bill. It describes this as the “temporary removal of clauses 1-18 from the bill, in advance of bringing back revised clauses later in the bill’s passage through parliament.” But this is surely face-saving rhetoric as there is simply no way it can possibly bring back such a poor piece of legislation in anything like its current form.

Why all this matters so much is two-fold. 

First, the education sector is divided on the merits of the government’s plan to fully academise schools and have them all in multi-academy trusts, with a proportion of school leaders either sceptical or actively hostile to the idea. It is therefore critical for the government to win hearts and minds if it wants a fair wind for this enormous task. Instead, it has managed to paint a picture of a botched power grab which seems neither in keeping with the notion of academy freedoms or with the notion of competent government. 

Second, the real and present danger for schools and colleges is the twin pressures of staff shortages and rising costs which are piling pressure on their budgets. Their attention is on how to fill vacancies and how to pay for soaring energy bills. It is therefore incredibly frustrating for them that the government is bungling its way through structural change at a time when its energies should be devoted to tackling the actual crises happening right now.

If this was an isolated case, a rare blemish on the government’s otherwise competent running of education, it would be less of a problem. But it isn’t. Let’s face it, the last two to three years have been a litany of chaos. 

In those elegant, flickering black-and-white movies of the 1920s, Hardy would turn to Laurel on so many occasions and say: “Well, here’s another fine mess you’ve gotten me into.” 

And here we are again. With a government mired in another fine mess.

Except now it’s not even remotely funny.

Geoff Barton is ASCL General Secretary.

Posted: 01/07/2022 14:25:11