The first thing that is striking about the White Paper is the change of tone from Michael Gove’s era as education secretary.
While Michael Gove wanted to leave education up to the market and hope that “a thousand flowers will bloom”, Nicky Morgan has clearly decided the government needs to proactively boost capacity and give schools the tools they need to do the job.
There are lots of welcome reforms under the headline of “building capacity” – including a reprieve from Ofsted inspections for headteachers who step in to take over failing schools; investment in leadership programmes; and expanding Teaching Schools to offer improvement services. What’s more these efforts will be explicitly targeted towards areas of the country such as deprived coastal towns, which have historically struggled to improve education outcomes.
But at the same time as claiming to build capacity, the White Paper simultaneously erodes a key source of capacity in the system: high performing local authorities.
It wants to turn all schools into academies and reduce the role local authorities play. But local authorities like Hackney, Barnett and Haringey perform just as a well as the top academy chains like Ark and Harris. Why would the government want to remove them as a source of capacity in the system?
These authorities should be allowed to set up their own “arms length trusts” to help support the move to a fully academised system. The whitepaper hints that this could be possible, but it stops short of actually recommending it.
There is also a real danger that central government will not be able to cope with implementing these changes so quickly. The government has struggled to convert 5,000 into academies over the last five years – getting into difficulties with finding enough academy sponsors, processing their funding, procuring land and so on.
It now wants to try and convert another 16,000 schools into academies over the next five years. Without local authorities being allowed to set up their own “arms length trusts” this will be almost impossible to deliver – and there is a risk we could end up with a chaotic and distracting school reorganisation as a result.
The White Paper recommends expanding the number of Teaching Schools and providing a pot of money to help build the capacity of some multi academy trusts – but this will not be sufficient given the scale of the task in hand.
I was also disappointed not to see more recommendations to help the school system function effectively at a local level. There is a big pressure on school places in some parts of the country and the admissions regime is incredibly complicated for parents to understand.
Part of the problem is that academies are able to set their own pupil numbers and administer their own admissions. The White Paper does little to resolve these concerns.
It argues that local authorities should have a new role to act as champions for parents and pupils and to ensure a supply of good school places – but doesn’t give them any tools to do the job. If local authorities are no longer school providers, why not let them run admissions?
This would be simpler for parents and reduce an enormous amount of bureaucracy for schools. If local authorities have to ensure a good place is available for every child, why not give them the power to ask academies to expand?
Our school system is at a cross roads. There is a real risk we could descend into a rushed and chaotic reorganisation of schools, resulting in a “wild west” race to the bottom. But there is a lot still to play for.
The White Paper sets out the right tone about supporting schools to improve in disadvantaged areas, but it has not made any concrete recommendations about the future role of local authorities in setting up trusts; the thorny question of which freedoms schools should have when they are all academies; or even the legal framework that will govern them. If it can get these things right in the coming months, a crisis might be averted.
Jonathan Clifton is Associate Director for Public Services at IPPR. He tweets: @jp_clifton