Limited details over new standards for academy trusts and tougher “statutory intervention powers” are the “biggest question mark in the whole paper”, says a former government adviser.
Ministers have faced a delicate balancing act in their academy push amid pressure for tougher action on failing trusts, but lower regulatory burdens on the rest.
But Sam Freedman, a former adviser at the Department for Education now at Ark Schools, said scarce details left regulatory reform “the biggest question mark in the whole white paper”.
He told an ArkTalks event this week: “If the regulator isn’t set up in the right way, nothing else is going to work.”
The white paper says a regulatory review in May will look at “how we will hold trusts to account through inspection”, and ensure a “single regulatory approach”.
The review will consider how to hold trusts accountable against new criteria for a “strong trust” – including high-quality, inclusive education, school improvement, maintaining local school identity, value for money and workforce development.
Standards will be underpinned by “new statutory intervention powers”, allowing “robust” action on trusts not achieving expected outcomes.
Martyn Oliver, the chief executive of the Outwood Grange Academies Trust, said the white paper was “full of good intent”, but added: “Everything will now hinge on the role and powers of the regulator.”
Academy intervention powers ‘weak’
A recent report from Freedman criticised “weak” intervention powers over low education standards. The DfE has been accused of lacking teeth over past academy financial scandals too.
Paul Heery, the chief executive of The White Hills Park Trust, agreed trusts needed more “transparent” accountability, after criticism of high pay, related party deals and exclusion practices.
But Leora Cruddas, the chief executive of the Confederation of School Trusts, said the DfE must not “compromise” trusts’ independence, or determine operational procedure.
Evelyn Forde, the head of the single-academy Copthall School in north London and the vice-president of the school leaders’ union ASCL, said she felt a “sense of exhaustion” at the idea of further new standards, warning it risked undermining autonomy and creativity.
Michael Pain, the founder of the MAT support company Forum Strategy, said over-prescriptive definitions risked being a “straitjacket”, with academy freedom “consigned to history”.
Steve Chalke, the founder of Oasis Community Learning, said he hoped standards would reflect partnership, rather than a “master-servant relationship”.
The “proliferation” of existing rules has already faced criticism, with Freedman highlighting regulations on the numbers of committee meetings.
Writing for Schools Week, Sir Jon Coles of United Learning, argued reforms should reduce the “extent and burden of process regulation”, but “weak provision must be tackled”.
It was “right to seek consensus built on evidence”, which showed “confident, not weak government”.