Ditch academies to create ‘unified’ education system, says think thank

The academies programme should be replaced with a single “unified” school system based on the best current practice from across the sector, a think tank has said.

A new report from EDSK, directed by Tom Richmond, a former adviser to both Michael Gove and Nicky Morgan, criticised the “fragmented and incoherent” education system and called on the government to “set the explicit goal of bringing all state schools together again”.

However, the plans have been met with scepticism from unions, amid concerns the proposals amount to total academisation on the sly and implementing them would cause unnecessary upheaval.

The proposals from EDSK include removing the terms “academies” and “free schools” and renaming multi-academy trusts to “national school trusts”.

All standalone academies become “independent state schools”, with headteachers electing to remain solo or create or join a trust, federation or informal partnership. Schools would be able to request to leave these groups after a period of time.

Under the plans, existing maintained schools could either opt to become independent state schools or join a local schools trust, which would be based on the MAT model and allow local authorities to run state schools in their area.

The current system of eight regional schools commissioners would be replaced with 35 local schools commissioners who would have to publish full details of the decisions they make and hold public consultations. The report said the current system of headteacher boards “should be jettisoned as soon as possible”.

Concerns about the transparency surrounding the important decisions made by RSC’s and headteacher boards have been a recurring issue for the academies sector. In November, the Department for Education finally added more details to board minutes from meetings.

Richmond said the “seemingly endless debates” over whether academies or maintained schools are better has made it “difficult to hold important discussions about how to improve education standards”.

“The best way to move beyond these polarised opinions is for the government to set the explicit goal of bringing all state schools together into a single, unified system that draws on the best of what academies and maintained schools have to offer,” he said.

But Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, described the think tank’s recommendations as a “clear attempt to breathe life into a dying [academies] programme” and accused the proposals of amounting to “the total academisation of the school system by central government diktat”.

“We agree that it is better to have one system for state schools in England rather than two, but in light of this we cannot understand the logic that leads the report’s authors to conclude this means plumping for an academised system,” he said.

“The reality is that it would be far preferable, easier and better for everyone to reinvigorate local democratic structures than to build upon the failure that is the academies programme.”

EDSK also called for an end to all related-party transaction. Since April, schools must declare payments to related-parties in advance and seek government permission to pay out more than £20,000 to any company or organisation with links management.

“Some related-party transactions could be useful for schools in certain circumstances, but the reputational damage they can cause the whole school system means that, on balance, the best outcome is to eliminate them entirely,” the report said.

The report said all state schools should publish annual accounts on their website, including details of any money paid to school groups and the names and total remuneration for anyone earning over £60,000, following growing concerns about excessive pay in some academy trusts. Local authorities would take over responsibility for admissions at all schools, to try and address concerns that some academies in particular have been failing to comply with fair access protocols.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said a unified school system was an “attractive” idea but would involve “a great deal of time, energy and expense”.

“It may be more productive to focus on addressing criticical issues such as the insufficiency of funding and teacher supply, the excessively high stakes natures of exams and accountability and ensuring we have a curriculum fit for the 21st century, rather than initiating yet another round of structural reform.”

A DfE spokesperson said: “Standards are rising in sponsored academies and freedom is placed in the hands of school leaders, allowing them to make decisions based on local need and in the interests of their pupils.

“Each year hundreds of schools make the positive choice to convert to academy status – giving great teachers the freedom to focus on what is best for pupils, as well as more autonomy.

“There are more than half a million children studying in sponsored primary and secondary academies that are now rated good or outstanding, with standards rising faster in many sponsored academies than in similar council-run schools.”



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  1. Oh, the irony. A former adviser to Michael Gove now says the system his boss created is ‘fragmented and incoherent’. The Academies Commission said as much in 2013. In 2015, the former Schools Adjudicator, Alan Parker, described the chaos and fragmentation within English education caused by successive reforms. Last year, the Public Accounts Committee said the DfE’s arrangements for overseeing all schools were ‘fragmented and incoherent’.
    And the suggested answer? To give MATs and stand-alone academies new clothes while requiring (sorry, allowing) existing LA schools to ‘opt’ into a MAT (sorry, national school trust) or join an LA group run on a trust model (thereby losing their individual legal identity).
    The system’s still incoherent and fragmentary. But we can’t unravel the mess without making it worse. Better to allow academies to return to LA stewardship if a majority of stakeholders want it, stand-alone academies to remain stand-alone and MATs only allowed to take on schools after proper consultation (not the sham consultations of today) and a stakeholder vote.

    • Mark Watson

      It may be controversial, but I don’t really agree with this “let the stakeholders make all the decisions” approach.
      Firstly unbridled power-to-the-people can quite clearly go disastrously wrong. (‘Brexit’ and ‘Trump’ being the two obvious ones). Brexit has resonance here – I have no figures to back this up, but I’m willing to bet that millions of people made up their mind on in-or-out based on their personal subjective viewpoints on Europe before they heard any of the arguments or understood the nuances. If it comes to a decision on LA or MAT for School X, some people will vote LA because they object to the principle of academies, some people will vote MAT because the LA doesn’t empty their bins. Neither of these votes would actually consider the position of School X and what would be best for its future.
      Secondly most stakeholders (who in the main are usually parents and staff) tend to have a vested self-interest which can cause the perception of conflicts of interest.
      If the staff vote to return to LA control/convert to an academy is this because it’s the best idea, or because they would get better working conditions?
      From a parent’s perspective, I’m massively more interested in the years when my children are going to be at the school as opposed to the longer-term. If my children have only got a couple of years left I’d prefer the school spend everything it can, rather than build up a fund for the future or invest in something that will only bear fruit in five years.
      So I do agree with you that schools should be able to return to local authority control, and I also think that schools should be able to continue to leave local authorities and join MATs (or whatever new name some fancy PR firm comes up with). I also think that better and more consultation can only be a good thing, but I don’t think it’s right to make it about who can organise the most votes.

      • Mark – you’re right that referendums can cause problems (that’s rather an understatement), but at the moment the consultations around academy conversion are a sham. Governors have made up their minds before consulting and push a one-sided view about the alleged benefits. Any consultation, whether about becoming an academy, moving trusts or returning to LA stewardship (not allowed at the moment) should be accompanied by a presentation showing for and against. Time-consuming, yes. Attention diverting, yes. But this is an unintended consequence of the mass drive towards academization underpinned by partisan government propaganda.

        • Mark Watson

          I agree that consultation is important. More important that I think it is treated by a lot of people. And I think that in most cases (though not all) a decision shouldn’t be made until all the relevant views are taken into account.

          But I also think that it’s worth emphasising that Governors are the ones with most information – finances, staffing, premises etc. They include parents and staff, and they do not personally benefit from a decision to convert to academy status. In fact, in almost all cases they are voting for something the result of which will be that they lose their positions of power (for want of a better phrase).

          Governors are not the enemy. If they’re ‘pushing’ for something it’s because they genuinely believe that’s the best course of action.

      • Mark – I agree with you about people voting for Leave based on their individual, subjective views on the EU, immigration, ‘sovereignty’, red bus propaganda and/or the seductive appeal of ‘Take Back Control’.
        That said, any consultation about the way forward for a school would be confined to staff, parents/carers (maximum of two so that second cousins, twice removed can’t vote and limited to current parents/carers or those with children who would likely enter the school within, say, two years) and governors.