So, here’s a problem: the education secretary is now directly responsible for around 4,000 English schools under the academy system. Unfortunately, the prime minister has staged a mutiny. The government is basically dead. We’re going to have to wait for 3 months for another one. What the heck happens now?
The Prime Minister said on Friday morning that he will stick around while a leadership campaign plays out. Education secretary Nicky Morgan is therefore still in post. At least for now and at least in spirit.
But Morgan is going to be distracted. There’s no way she, her advisors, everyone in her department, can carry on for the next 3 months and pretend everything is fine. For a start, Morgan will need to play a part in the leadership campaign. Even if she doesn’t run for pole position herself, she’s going to be backing someone’s campaign – which will take time and energy. Then there’s the problem of her making major decisions that could have financial or social consequences for a future leader. So policy decisions are likely to be put on the shelf to go mouldy.
A distracted education secretary is bad enough, but the way laws have changed since 2010 the education secretary now has enormous power. She is ultimately responsible for all academies. She signs off on new free schools. She is the one who must order failing schools to change hands. She holds the contracts that define how schools operate. She is in the midst of forcibly converting hundreds of schools which require ministerial sign-off.
This isn’t something that can be shrugged off while the government sorts itself out. These are decisions that need taking tomorrow, the next day, every day – otherwise much of the school system is likely to grind to a messy halt.
Regional schools commissioners were introduced to take some of this burden. They do the actual choosing of free schools, and the recommendations for new operators. But the law is clear. It is the education secretary with the power to sign things off. An amazing array of decisions on schools must go to ministerial level.
We have created a system in which the education secretary holds an incredible amount of power, and then the prime minster has knee-capped her.
This does not mean the school system will collapse. Institutions are remarkably resilient and what will happen is a lot of working around. The machinery at the Department for Education – the civil servants, the advisors – will do their best to make sensible decisions. That said, many decisions won’t be sensible. They’ll be made on the fly, with uncertainty, and the consequences will come back to bite in ways we cannot even imagine right now because no one knows how these things will play out.
But right now there is a moment where we have to take stock of the fact that the education secretary holding so much power in the new academy system is a problem in these unusual times. That the creator of the country-wide academy system, Michael Gove, is a driving force in the leadership chaos feels like a macabre joke.
For schools in the middle of forced conversion, sponsorship change, or sponsorship creation, the uncertainty already built into those processes is, I fear, about to become even greater.
As with all parts of the public sector, academies need to hold onto their seats. The ride just got even bumpier.