The white paper, academisation and a tidying-up exercise

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

Next week is the week of the government’s much-awaited white paper on education. A white paper is when an administration sets out its ambitions, essentially saying “here’s where we go from here”. 

In this case we know that the ambition will be for 2030 – well beyond the current parliamentary window, and in a future where current ministers will have moved on.

But young people won’t have moved on. If you’re a child aged ten, about to move from your primary to your new secondary school, then by 2030 you’ll be about to step into adult life – in employment or further study.

So, the white paper should be judged by what it’s committing to do on behalf of those young people in the coming years.

And next week we’ll find out what’s being promised.

And we have some hints.  Speaking to ASCL’s Annual Conference, Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi said that he saw the future as “involving all schools being part of a strong trust – and I will say more about this in my white paper.” 

This won’t take the bull-in-a-china-shop approach of Nicky Morgan’s abandoned white paper in 2016 which proposed forcing all schools to become academies. So, there’s clearly going to be some other more subtle forms of leverage – which we’ll find out about soon.

But the question is why this is necessary at all and how will it help that ten-year-old?

For all the ideological arguments about academisation – and I can’t help feeling the time on that has now passed – the fact is that nobody would have deliberately designed the system which has ‘evolved’. It is an absolute mess. It is commonly viewed as two systems – local authority schools, and academies. But in fact, it is more like three systems with the academy sector being split into stand-alone schools and multi-academy trusts. Many multi-academy trusts involve a relatively small number of schools, while others are comparatively very large.

I hasten to add that within these different systems there are lots of schools doing fantastic work whatever their organisational structure. 

Which begs the question whether the fact that it is very messy matters? 

I suppose the biggest problem with it is that it pitches different parts of the system against one another. So, you have multi-academy trusts competing with one another to take on new schools and grow their trusts, at least some local authorities holding out against schools that may want to academise, and stand-alone trusts fearful of losing their autonomy. You also have the problem of ‘orphan’ schools that cannot find a trust.

In the midst of this you have one system set up to oversee academy finances, another for local authority schools, and then the headache-inducing complexity of funding streams which filter through this almighty tangle.

A lot of this is not insurmountable – and in fact various ‘work rounds’ have been devised over the past few years to make sense of this. But nobody would have deliberately designed such a messy system. 

The other point is that none of this helps with the idea that there are many benefits to schools collaborating with one another. Again, I hasten to add that multi-academy trusts are not the only model out there for fostering collaboration, and many schools do very well through other models. And collaboration also needs to be supported by an adjustment to the accountability measures which also pitch schools against each other. But equally, there is a strong argument for tidying up the current system and there is also an air of inevitability about the direction in which the government wishes to move.

The frustration is that none of this mess was caused by schools or local authorities but by the government itself, and that the forthcoming white paper is in large part therefore a tidying up exercise. 

We have talked a lot about the importance of an ambitious vision for children and young people, of looking again at the curriculum and qualifications, of addressing the plight of child poverty which holds back so many pupils, of how we support the most vulnerable students. These are the really important things. 

And yet here, some two decades after the first steps were made towards academisation, we are expending more energy, time and resources trying to sort it out. Whilst – as I said in my conference speech – there are more ambitious things the government could commit to doing, such as, for starters, ending child poverty.

Geoff Barton is ASCL General Secretary.
Posted: 25/03/2022 15:59:36