David Cameron’s Conservative government has made a significant u-turn on education policy after announcing late Friday that a plan to convert all state schools into academies would be reversed.
Unions had criticised the plan since its announcement in March, but a new sense of urgency to re-evaluate came from Cameron’s own Conservative backbenchers. Dozens of MPs reportedly called on the government to re-consider mandating school transitions to academies citing a host of concerns including its effects on rural schools management. Severing a rural school’s relationship with local authorities and instead potentially replacing that with management by far-off charities in London was touted by the MPs as being a suboptimal approach.
The original plan was for England’s schools to convert to academies by 2022 — and that plan will remain for the lowest-performers. Schools deemed in need of intervention will still be forced to become academies, but healthier, well-performing schools will have an option. The government will continue to encourage their conversion, but it will no longer be mandatory.
Education Secretary Nicky Morgan said in a statement that:
“I am today reaffirming our determination to see all schools become academies. However, having listened to the feedback from parliamentary colleagues and the education sector, we will now change the path to reaching that goal.”
The change comes as welcome news to unions, with the reversal being touted as a failure by Cameron’s administration. Kevin Courtney, the deputy general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, sees it as the first major crack in the government’s foundation of education policy — and a harbinger of more reversals to come:
“We’ve had widespread protests at cities across the country, and we’ve had parents meeting in our headquarters determined to make a difference… It feels to me as though teachers have reached breaking point.”
Labour Shadow Education Secretary Lucy Powell said:
“It is frankly a humiliating climbdown for David Cameron and his education secretary, who just weeks ago were insisting they would plough on with the policy regardless.”
Conservative local councils rose up to complain about the mandate because they want to continue to exercise successful control and have the freedom to oversee high-performing schools.
Critics of the government charged Morgan and the Department for Education of ‘burying’ the academy announcement at the same time that election results were announced, which included the victory of Labour’s Sadiq Khan as London’s next mayor in his defeat of Conservative challenger Zac Goldsmith.
In the announcement, Morgan said that, “Making every school an academy is the best way to ensure every child, regardless of birth or background, has access to a world-class education… However, having listened to the feedback from Parliamentary colleagues and the education sector we will now change the path to reaching that goal.”
The National Association of Head Teachers had a relatively moderate response to the policy change despite Morgan fielding harsh criticism at the annual NAHT conference just a week ago:
“We recognise that the Government remains strongly in favour of academies and we ourselves have nothing against voluntary conversion to academy status. We can have a much better conversation about academies in this new climate. We welcome this constructive approach.”
Along with the changes to academies policy, the government announced a series of measures to support small rural schools and aid their success.