Do you remember last Saturday? It was boiling hot and the world was sunny – not least because Nicky Morgan had announced on Friday afternoon she wouldn’t be making all schools into academies after all.
Except, it wasn’t that straightforward. (It never is).
At 6.30am on Saturday I therefore found myself explaining to listeners of BBC Radio 5 Live that this was less a u-turn, and more a “z-turn” in which Morgan had taken a step forward towards a whole-academy system, then a step back, but there was a crucial third step to which we now had to pay attention.
As our analysis lays bare, under the new plans two types of areas will have all their schools made into academies: those deemed under-performing, and those whose finances are so low they can’t sustain a school improvement service.
The councils deemed under-performing will be blamed for their poor schools and told that academisation is all their own fault. The ones with low finances similarly so, even though squeezed budgets are not their fault.
The z-turn plan is a clever one because it means Morgan gets to have her own way – an all-academy system – but instead of everyone pointing their pitchforks at her, she can point them at everyone else. “Not my fault your schools are hopeless,” she will say. “Not my fault you can’t manage your money responsibly.”
One positive consequence is that the academy land grab might now quieten a touch. Last month, after Morgan announced her original plan, over 200 schools applied to “voluntarily” convert status. That’s the highest number, by far, since 2011 – with the monthly average around 50.
Knowing the DfE’s internal processes are not always tip-top (that’s not conjecture, by the way, that’s based on independent audits and a plethora of performance statistics), I presume the influx of applicants was tough to deal with. Due diligence and careful accounting is vital to avoid the sorts of problems we saw last time many schools converted in 2011. Both take time and manpower, something lacking in the department and which wasn’t adequately increased to take account of the sudden all-academy plan. The z-turn should slow that pace to something more manageable.
What’s worse about the new situation, though, is that it raises the uncertainty level for the average classroom teacher. When everyone was expected to convert, heads could take their time, pick a sponsor, discuss with staff, develop things at their own pace.
Under the new regime it will feel to teachers as if Morgan has a sniper roving over England looking for the next council she can take out – and if you’re in that council, even if you’re in an outstanding school, that’s tough! You’ll be taken
This uncertainty is leading to the sorts of behaviours more akin to political backroom deals than schools: heads promising their schools will go in with each other as long as everyone agrees to keep out a competitor school, over-generous financial offers to primaries with
lovely intakes, a shunning of schools with buildings too expensive to maintain.
Among teachers it is also contributing to further concern about pay and conditions. As our story on page 8 shows, academy trusts are starting to look at their budgets and where they don’t stack up across schools, redundancies are being made. It’s not a folly to believe that if an academy trust takes over the place where you are working you could be caught in a similar situation. Even if you’re not, the pay and conditions flexibility of academies mean wages are less protected than they were.
Still, at least the sun was shining last weekend. Even Nicky Morgan couldn’t change that.