Plans to “move towards” a fully-academised school system by targeting areas where councils are underperforming or unviable have been laid out in the Queen’s Speech, after the government gave up on proposals that would have forced all schools to convert.
The speech, written by the government and delivered by the Queen today, included a pledge to bring forward legislation in the form of the Education for All bill, which will deliver powers to force schools to convert depending on the circumstances of their local authority.
The plans to focus on councils were unveiled two weeks ago, as a compromise on original white paper proposals to force all schools to convert by 2022, which were opposed across the political divide, including by back-bench Conservative MPs.
The u-turn, which was branded “humiliating” by union leaders when it was announced, was also mocked by Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn this afternoon when he responded to the speech in Parliament.
Corbyn said parents, governors, pupils, teachers and headteachers would be “relieved” to get final confirmation that the “wrong-headed proposals to impose forced academisation have finally been dumped”.
Although detail on how the Department for Education will define underperformance or unviability in councils is awaiting formal consultation and a vote in Parliament, information distributed following today’s speech sheds some light on how the government plans to proceed.
The legislation will include a new duty on councils to “facilitate” the process of academy conversion, aimed at making it “swifted and smoother” for schools. Although details are still patchy, the government is expected to publish guidance for local authorities and schools.
The Local Government Association, which represents councils, has remained vocal in its opposition to forced academisation, and said schools should “have the choice” on whether to convert to academy status.
Roy Perry, the chair of the association’s children and young people board, said: “Only a handful of multi-academy trusts currently maintain more than ten sponsored academies, compared to councils, which maintain large numbers of schools and have significant experience and expertise, so we will be keen to explore how councils will be considered ‘unviable’ to maintain schools.
“In addition, councils will continue working with all schools to deliver the education needed by individual communities, from making sure every child has a suitable school place, to protecting vulnerable children. Suggesting a council is ‘unviable’ ignores this crucial role that councils will continue to play in education.”
Russell Hobby, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, has also expressed doubts, claiming the academies plan could prove to be a “distraction from what really matters”.
“We have fundamental concerns with the government’s plans for forced academisation,” said Hobby. “The government is still set to take powers to force good and outstanding schools to convert regardless of the professional judgement of school leaders.
“Taken together, we continue to see a focus on structural reform at the expense of capacity building.”