I worked on the last DfE white paper – and couldn’t resolve this academy mess

A new DfE white paper? Let’s hope it solves the academy mess, writes Matt Hood


Tony Blair came to power in 1997 on a promise of standards and not structures. Ten years’ experience of transforming the public realm changed his mind. He left office reflecting that when it comes to raising standards it turns out structures do matter. Or, in policy wonk speak, ‘how a service is configured affects outcomes.’

And he’s right.

In 2010 I was a civil servant in the Department for Education working on the last white paper. I was tasked with thinking through the role of local authorities within this new diverse education landscape where free schools, sponsored academies, converter academies and local authority schools all co-existed alongside each other. It’s fair to say that, despite my best efforts, I failed miserably in that task.

The result of leaving that question, and many more like it unanswered has been an unhelpful dose of confusion for everyone. We have a system where Local Authorities, Multi-Academy Trusts (MATs), Ofsted, Regional Schools Commissioners (RSCs), DfE brokers, and schools are not only unclear about the details of their own job description, they are also unclear about the job descriptions of everybody else. Back to policy wonk speak – this poor configuration affects outcomes as precious time and energy is spent running sub-optimal parallel systems.

I’m counting on my successor to do a better job than me for the 2022 plan

If like me, you’re in the process of converting your own school into an academy you’ll know that the act itself isn’t going to improve outcomes for your kids. But would running one, coherent system across all schools help to raise standards for the system? I certainly think could help.

If that’s to be the case I’m counting on my successor to do a better job than me when it comes to the 2022 plan. I’d like to see Ofsted as inspectorate and not political commentator; RSCs focused on MAT capacity and a transparent process for moving schools between chains; the best local authority teams heading out to start their own MATs; and councillors carving out a new role in admissions and advocating for parents. One system, with clear roles, helping us to get on with the task of ensuring that all children get an excellent education.

And just think! We might even be able to go back to calling schools, schools again.

Your thoughts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


  1. Janet Downs

    The lack of thought underpinning Gove’s White Paper (which was, as we now know, based on the false premise that the UK was plummeting down PISA league tables) is an example of what Neil Carmichael, chair of the Education Select Committee, describes as the ‘Acting first; thinking later’ approach of the DfE towards education reform.
    Now we’ve got an incoherent, confused, scrappy mess – a mess which has cost billions.
    And the solution according to a new White Paper? Turn all English schools into academies. These will increasingly be within multi-academy trusts which will have far more influence over education in their schools than LAs ever had even before Local Management of Schools.

  2. Janet Downs

    Matt Hood would like to see ‘…councillors carving out a new role in admissions and advocating for parents.’
    But academization is built on the assumption that councillors have no role at all – academies are their own admission authorities. And if parents have a complaint about academies they can’t take it to councillors – they have to go through the academy’s complaints procedure before they can complain to the DfE. And even then the DfE will only judge whether the correct procedure was followed and not reverse decisions.
    Parents? They’re out of the picture as well – the White Paper wants them dumped from governing bodies. Parents – what do they know?