A Conservative council has ditched plans to convert all schools into academies by 2025, after new education secretary Nadhim Zahawi struck a more conciliatory tone on academisation than his predecessor.
Swindon council’s cabinet was due to approve plans on Wednesday to “support” 25 maintained schools and 18 standalone academies to “proactively move towards” joining multi-academy trusts.
The move sparked a union backlash amid fears of forced conversions, but council leader David Renard warned the last schools to convert risked being “left out in the cold” and council finances could suffer unless it took a “strategic approach”.
The new academies minister Baroness Barran even backed the move, calling it “innovative” and telling Schools Week she looked forward to seeing a “positive impact”.
The council motion had not spelled out what would happen if schools objected, but Renard strongly denied it ever planned “forcing schools down the MAT path”.
But the council has now watered down the project, in a move cautiously welcomed by unions and the local Conservative MP.
‘Different line’ from Zahawi
The initial key proposal – to support all schools to join trusts and “plan implementation” for maintained schools with the regional schools commissioner by 2025 – has been axed.
A council report described its plan as a “response” to former education secretary’s Gavin Williamson “vision” in April for all schools to join MATs.
But Renard said the new education secretary Nadhim Zahawi “appears to have taken a different line from his predecessor” in a speech at the NAHT conference last weekend.
Revised council papers note Zahawi’s apparent support for an “ecosystem” with different types of school governance co-operating. Zahawi also said he would not set “arbitrary timelines” for all schools joining MATs, and noted there were some “brilliant” maintained schools.
It marked a more conciliatory tone towards the sector. Williamson only spoke of the benefits of trusts in an interview with Schools Week earlier this year, with the government “actively looking” at how to get more schools into MATs.
The amended plan says that while the government’s “ultimate intent” appears unchanged, the council should still carry out further investigations” with the regional schools commissioner.
The report had highlighted the growing “financial pressure” of falling council income as maintained school numbers drop, despite fixed costs of providing central statutory services.
This requires a “new model of working”, though the report did not outline how an estimated £122,000 shortfall if all schools converted would be filled.
But the cabinet still voted to “consider the implications” of all schools joining trusts, and to “work with schools to explore options and opportunities of school governance structures that will benefit children”.
Barran told Schools Week before the reversal that Swindon was one of several councils “stepping up to find innovative ways to support their local schools”, adding: “I look forward to seeing a positive impact.”
Backlash from unions, Labour and local Tory MP
The proposals had sparked an immediate backlash. Rob Kelsall, national secretary of headteachers’ union NAHT, said the U-turn was “welcome”, but members’ trust had been “shaken to the core”.
He had written to the council on Tuesday night warning school leaders and chairs of governors had expressed “grave concerns” about plans to “force” conversion.
The letter hit out at apparent “abdication of the council’s responsibility” and a “lack of meaningful consultation”.
Several heads attended the vote at the council’s offices, while the NEU staged a protest outside. Hannah Packham, NEU regional secretary, condemned the “top-down” move and highlighted “serious concerns” about local MATs’ capacity to expand.
Swindon Labour also slammed the proposal, with education spokesperson Paul Dixon questioning how much choice schools would have over which trusts they joined.
Even the Conservative MP for South Swindon, Robert Buckland, said the council had “wisely pulled back”, saying he favoured “evolution not revolution” and governing body autonomy.
He added that Zahawi himself had struck “exactly the right note”.
“I’m not a believer in one-size-fits-all prescription. Why try and be overly ideological?”
Council still plans school-MAT meetings
Renard acknowledged worries over forced conversion had “caused a lot of concern” among teaching unions, but added: “This could not be further from the truth.”
The leader said officials would still work with single academies and maintained schools to “look at all the options”, but take a “partnership approach” and give time for consultation.
Swindon council is “already looking to facilitate meetings” with MATs and schools.
Kelsall said the council was “trying to rewrite history” by denying planning forced conversions, and he remained concerned by the “direction of travel”.
Andy Newman, the GMB’s local branch secretary, said roles such as school business managers could be at risk if single academies had to join MATs. While he welcomed the plans being “watered-down”, the GMB still fears the proposals may “ultimately remain the same”.