White paper is a ‘goner’, says policy expert

White paper is a 'goner', says policy expert

Major reforms such as forced academisation face being kyboshed in the wake of Brexit, Whitehall experts have told Schools Week.

Policies unveiled in the government’s latest education white paper, published just three months ago, could be sidelined until a new government forms, and could even be dropped, they say.

Those policies include plans to force schools in poor performing or unviable councils to convert into academies, new performance tables for academy trusts and a reform of alternative provision.

An education bill outlining the new legislation is yet to be laid before parliament. Whitehall insiders say its future hinges on the desire of a new education secretary or prime minister to push through the changes.

Schools Week also understands the post-Brexit limbo could push back the implementation of the long-awaited national funding formula by at least a year, to 2018.

The fall-out could also impact on the operational capacity of the department, with fears that experienced civil servants will be moved over to head the government’s new Brexit ministry.

It comes just months after Chris Wormald, the department’s long-standing permanent secretary, left to join the Department of Health. His successor, Jonathan Slater, has been in post just eight weeks.

The uncertainty now means many schools will be in limbo, especially those facing uncertainty over whether they will have to convert into academies.

Jonathan Simons, head of education  at think tank Policy Exchange (pictured), said: “The white paper, as a whole, and the proposed bill, as a whole, is a goner.

“It might be resurrected in a different form. But Educational Excellence Everywhere is Nicky Morgan’s phrase.”

He said “in all likelihood” there would be a new education secretary in September who would want to “put their own stamp on the department”.

“They will have their own priorities and need time to think, ‘is this [bill] what we really need?’”

He said he expected an education bill to be included in the next Queen’s Speech, which could follow a possible general election next year.

“The bill may contain large chunks of existing proposals – the policy challenges are still the same – but with a different spin.”

Robert Hill, a former government education policy adviser, said he did not think the white paper was “history”, but added: “But nor will the agenda proceed as planned – and it wasn’t anyway.”

He understood the bill would not have been ready until autumn, but said it might get delayed if there were a new secretary of state when a new prime minister was announced.

“Powers they [the government] need for mass academisation could also be delayed.”

John Fowler, an education policy consultant, said there was “no plan. It will completely slow down the government legislation machine.

“Lawyers are going to have to be taken off this project to work on Brexit. They can buy in from the private sector — at vast cost, but they will have to.

“It will just bung up the whole legislative decision-making process. I’ve never seen anything like it in my life.”

Hill added that many schools resisting academisation would use the delay to “hold out in hope that an election may change things”.

But he said the “drift” towards multi-academy trusts would continue in many areas.

All three experts agreed that the implementation of the national funding formula, aimed at ending historical inequalities, would be pushed back until 2018.

The government is yet to launch a second consultation on its plans, which would contain much more detail about which schools would lose or gain extra funding.

“At the minute, they would have to do a lot in the next two weeks [so it is ready to go by 2017],” said Simons.

“There just isn’t the political will. The minute it [the formula] comes out, every MP whose schools are proposed to lose money will want to meet Morgan.”

But he said it was a Conservative manifesto commitment that was politically advantageous to pursue.

Hill said the “lack of political leadership” might now also mean the department “takes its eye off” other issues schools faced, including primary assessment problems, initial teacher training reforms and teacher recruitment.

The Department for Education was recently criticised by both the National Audit Office and Public Accounts Committee for having a lack of “leadership or urgency” and “no plan” to deal with recruitment.

But a government source said it was “business as usual. We are getting on with our manifesto that was agreed, and we were elected on, last year.

“Whoever is prime minister, we still have a vision and a job to do with implementing what was in our manifesto.”