Academies

Academies system has given politicians too much power, says ex-DfE boss

Ex-permanent secretary says academisation has left school system 'more centralised than it should be'

Ex-permanent secretary says academisation has left school system 'more centralised than it should be'

Academisation of the school system has handed too much power to a “very small number” of politicians, the Department for Education’s former top boss has warned.

Former DfE permanent secretary Jonathan Slater said the academies system was “more centralised than it should be”. He also questioned “whether it makes sense” to give individual ministers “quite so much power over what children learn in school”.

Slater, who was sacked in 2020 amid the fallout over exams, was speaking at an Institute for Government panel discussion on whether his former department can “respond to post-pandemic challenges”.

The consequence of academisation is that it does concentrate political power very much in the hands of a very small number of people in Westminster

He said the academisation of the school system had led to the DfE overseeing “thousands and thousands and thousands of schools”, with decisions previously taken by local councils now taken at a national level.

Slater accepted there was an “important role” for politicians in overseeing education as public money is being spent.

But he warned that the “consequence of academisation is that it does concentrate political power very much in the hands of a very small number of people in Westminster, supported by an increasing number of civil servants”.

“And for myself, I think it’s more centralised than it should be.”

As of last January, 78 per cent of secondary schools and 37 per cent of primary schools are academies, with responsibility for their oversight sitting in Whitehall, rather than local authorities.

Slater gave the example of decisions about repairs to school buildings, which during his tenure were taken by academies ministers Lord Nash and Lord Agnew.

Slater questions ministers’ curriculum role

He also mentioned Nick Gibb, an “extremely influential” schools minister for most of the last decade, who was known for his strong views on how children should be taught to read and what subjects should be taught to 16-year-olds.

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Nick Gibb

But he said “whatever you think of Nick’s views”, there “does seem to be a question in my mind, in this balance between national and local, as to whether it makes sense to give one person quite so much power over what children learn in school”.

Slater’s time at the DfE began in the final months of Nicky Morgan’s tenure as education secretary, and after a period of extensive growth of the academies system started under Michael Gove.

However, shortly after he started in 2016, Morgan’s successor Justine Greening scrapped plans to force schools to become academies. The government’s intervention in “coasting” schools was also rolled back in 2018 under Damian Hinds.

But ministers have since reiterated their desire for all schools to join multi-academy trusts, with the upcoming schools white paper expected to set out how the government will achieve its goal.

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