News are views from the Chair of NCOGS

Written by Andy Kent

Monday 1st November 2016

So, That Was the White Paper That Was

The “big news” yesterday was the government’s confirmation that it had decided not to introduce the promised “Education for All” Bill after all; the Education Bill it did announce one on Technical and Further Education – is unlikely to be of much interest to school governance professionals, dealing as it will with post 16 apprenticeships, and Further Education insolvency regimes aimed at protecting students’ interests. So, where does that leave schools, governance, and the “school led system” which remains the government’s commitment, alongside an aspiration of academisation for all?

We know that 65% of secondaries and 18% of primaries are already academies, and that compulsory academy orders for schools in Ofsted categories inevitably mean that number will continue to creep up. The yet to come in to play coasting school category will no doubt lead to some schools receiving academy orders too in due course. And then there are those schools which one way or another which are already part way down the path of joining or forming MATs for a range of motivations. As well as this, in many (most?) Catholic Dioceses, work is ongoing in mapping out groupings of schools for actual or possible conversion, and similarly so in many Church of England Diocese too. Of course, there will be differences in impetus, perspective, and outcome, but it seems reasonable to anticipate that all Diocese will wish to ensure they have a “safe haven” MAT, or MATs for any of their schools that may imminently or in due course receive academy orders. Given around a third schools in England are of a religious character the impact on current academy figures could be significant.

Local Authorities continue to face substantial budgetary pressures, and next year the ending of the Education Support grant. And in much of the country increasing demand for school places, with any new school virtually certain to be a free school, not a maintained one, a further reason why the proportion of maintained schools will inevitably continue to decline for the foreseeable future. Nevertheless, LA responsibilities for education and towards schools however funded remain significant, including around monitoring and intervention, albeit alongside newly empowered Regional Schools Commissioners, the latters capacity having been increased somewhat over the past year. This leaves LAs as important players in the system, and it is hard to imagine whatever developments there may be in the years ahead that schools and MATs will not need to work collaboratively on a wide range of social policy issues in the best interests of young people and communities. It is not impossible that lines of accountability for RSCs might shift to Councils, or combined authorities; certainly, this thought has not escaped leaders in Greater Manchester post mayoralty.

Significant though yesterday’s announcement is, including it would seem a further big question mark over when or if there will be a new national funding formula, the probability is the government is still “Z turning”, and will look again at the levels of academisation, and perhaps return to some form of Education for All Bill in the next or subsequent Queen’s speeches leading towards 2020. Though of course Brexit may yet lead to an election before then, and even if not, may so overwhelm government as to lead to a legislative semi paralysis.

The stated desire to focus on “capacity building” in the system is perhaps recognition at ministerial level that amid all the academy hype of recent years, the move to academise has often been chaotic and at best loosely overseen until relatively recently, and the risks in the system, not simply structures related need mitigating. And whilst pit props are emerging to sustain the “self-improving” system, they are yet a considerable way short of sufficient to bear the burden of challenging and supporting all schools in England. A different ministerial style, and the concerns of many local government leaders, not least in Conservative shires, may also have played a part in the policy slow down. All speculation, though the grammar school debate is set to continue, and may yet lead to legislative change and potentially much discord and instability in affected areas. But more of that anon. However, for school leaders, governors and trustees, plotting a strategic path may well feel more uncertain and fraught than ever.