The education secretary has said he won’t set an “arbitrary” deadline or timeline for structural change to the school system, but refused to be drawn about whether remaining maintained schools will be forced to convert to academy status.
Nadhim Zahawi was quizzed about his plans for schools at the NAHT school leaders’ union’s annual conference in London today.
Zahawi pledged earlier this week to bring forward a new white paper in the new year. He said today the white paper would ensure “strong schools with excellent leaders and robust systems”.
Speculation has been growing about how the government will complete its academies reforms, after Zahawi’s predecessor Gavin Williamson announced earlier this year that he wanted to see all schools in multi-academy trusts.
During a Q&A after his conference speech today, Zahawi was asked by Catherine Jones, the head of a maintained school in Sunderland to “clarify the direction of the government’s academisation plans”.
“We provide a good standard of education. We’re outward-looking and collaborative. We serve our community extremely well. We would like to remain autonomous. Is this still an option for successful schools?”
Schools ‘do benefit’ from being in academy trusts
Zahawi said he believed schools “do benefit from being part of a multi-academy trust”.
“There is evidence that that makes a huge benefit and trusts of course help underperforming schools to improve and provide the opportunities for teachers and leaders to enable them to focus on what I think matters most, which we all agree on, which is high-quality teaching and support for pupils outcomes effectively.”
However, he said the government was “not going to set an arbitrary deadline to achieve a wholesale structural change, but I think there’s strength in the trust structure”.
“I think a family of schools if they can be stronger together is a good thing, so that would be my message. I do want us to look at the journey that we’ve been on and how we’re going to move forward together
“And I will always look at the evidence, and I will come here and I will share it with you, and we will move forward together.”
A crucial question for the government is whether it will force the remaining local authority maintained schools to become academies, or simply offer them incentives to do so. On this, Zahawi was non-committal.
‘Let us get on with our jobs’
Jones said her school was already part of a family of schools, and asked Zahawi for a “concrete guarantee” that she as a maintained school leader could choose the direction of travel “for my children and my community”.
“We don’t need unwanted, pressurised, structural changes in these unprecedented and challenging times. Let us get on with our jobs.”
Zahawi replied: “Catherine I will promise you this. I want you to get on with your job. I will not set arbitrary timelines.
“I will bring you the evidence and work with you to make sure that whatever we do, we’ll do it together, and we will produce, I hope, an ecosystem that will build on all the good things that the evidence demonstrates can happen and then we will be able to have that discussion and see how we move forward.
“I won’t do anything that will cause you a setback. I want to work with you. There are some brilliant schools that are doing incredibly well still with our local authorities.”
‘There aren’t enough black headteachers’
The education secretary was also asked about the diversity of school leaders, admitting that “school leadership is not representative when it comes to race, and as you say, there aren’t enough black headteachers.
“I’d go further and say there aren’t enough black leaders in the civil service and high echelons of departments across Government and we need to do better there as well.”
Schools Week investigations have found the proportion of black, Asian and minority ethnic bosses leading the largest trusts has been falling.
The lack of progress comes three years after the Department for Education published a statement of intent to improve diversity in the sector.
Zahawi added: “I really do think that it’s critical that teaching is an inclusive profession. Schools and their leadership teams should reflect their communities and their pupils and I’m absolutely determined to see improvements.
“I think we need inspiring teachers to represent and motivate pupils from all walks of life. It’s not good enough. We have got to go further and I hope we’ll do it together. I want us to make sure that we continue to encourage more black and ethnic minority candidates into the profession.”