The government may have made a u-turn on forced academisation, says Lucy Powell, but its misguided fixation with school structures remains

David Cameron and Nicky Morgan have been forced into a humiliating climbdown. However they try to spin it, they have made a major concession by dropping their target to force all schools to become academies by 2022.

Everyone who was part of the alliance to oppose this self-evidently flawed idea – parents, headteachers, local government, Labour and some Conservative MPs and councillors – should be proud of the role that they played in forcing the government into “reverse gear”. The proposal would have significantly disrupted thousands of good and outstanding schools, without bringing about the lift in standards that education so badly needs. The Conservative leadership should now apologise for the chaos and headache it has caused for heads, who have been forced to turn their focus from gearing up pupils for upcoming exams and assessments, to whether they should jump into a multi-academy chain before they are pushed.

The genie is now out of the bottle

As the dust clears following the u-turn, however, it is clear that the government’s misguided fixation with school structures remains. Essentially, it is now committed to the end goal of “every school an academy”, without the legislation to achieve it. As a result, it will continue to spend time, money and energy on forcing or coaxing schools to change their legal status, at the expense of focusing on raising standards.

The sustained commitment to forcing good and outstanding schools to become academies against their wishes, in areas where there is underperformance in other schools, demonstrates that the government has again missed the point. In many of the areas singled out by Ofsted for poor standards, most secondary schools are already academies. The government still has not given any consideration as to how to drive up standards in those schools where academisation has not brought about any improvement. All the while, far too many children are being left to fall behind.

While Cameron and Morgan seem determined not to learn the lessons for why there was no support for this policy, their colossal failure to make the case has let the genie out of the bottle. By putting the debate over forced academisation on the agenda, they have brought the issue to a whole new audience. And ever since they announced their policy seven weeks ago, they have singularly failed to articulate to this audience why an all-academy school system is needed.

Instead, the media is now rightly asking questions about the performance of those academy chains with poor or middling results. New research by PwC published last weekend reveals that only three of the biggest academy chains has a positive value-added rating, whilst just one of the 26 biggest primary sponsors achieves results above the national average. The government urgently needs to explain why there is such a disparity in standards between academy chains and their capacity to expand, and what it is going to do about it.

There is no evidence that forcing all schools to become academies will bring about the improvements we need. School budgets are currently facing the first real cuts for 20 years. Already the denigration of the teaching profession over the past six years and botched reforms to recruitment, have led to chronic shortages of teachers up and down the country. The Tories’ approach to planning for school places and removal of local input when opening and expanding schools, has resulted in the highest number of infants in class sizes for 15 years and a quarter of primary schools are now full or over capacity. Primary assessment is in chaos and new GCSE and A-level specifications are behind schedule.

To date, the obsession with school structures has allowed the focus in education policy to move away from tackling failure and the long tail of underachievement, setting our schools system back immeasurably. They should learn from their failure to push through this plan, and turn their attention to the big challenges facing education over the next five years.