Each successive Secretary of State for Education tightens the noose of state control around schools, and the current one, Nicky Morgan, is no exception. The Schools and Adoption Bill currently making its way through parliament is a short bill with a long arm.
Its remit is with “maintained” (state) schools only (academies and free schools are exempt), a rapidly diminishing sector. The intention is to speed up the rate of “conversion” to academy status – by force.
By March this year, 60 per cent of state-funded secondary schools were academies (effectively independent schools funded by you and me). In primary schools the programme has been less enthusiastically embraced – less than a fifth are academies or free schools.
The new bill intends to change this. It gives extensive powers to the state to intervene in state schools, using Ofsted as the tool. Any school deemed to be “inadequate” by Ofsted – a category that has been broadened in scope over its years of existence, and its definition regularly changed to catch out more and more schools – will be forcibly converted into an academy. “Coasting” schools, schools which are doing well but not as well as they should be in Ofsted’s view, will also be subject to intervention.
Until now, the practice has been that schools which fail inspections have been leaned on heavily and bullied by the DfE to join an academy chain of government choice. The problem was that often schools resisted the process. Now consultation with “stakeholders” is to be swept away in a procedure both rapid and brutal. To aid this, the right to appeal against an Ofsted judgement is to be removed.
The 2006 Education and Inspections Act gave local authorities powers to intervene in maintained schools. But local authorities have never had any jurisdiction over academies and free schools, unless they are breaking the law. The secretary of state was supposed to be directly overseeing academies and free schools, but as the scandals and failures in these schools started to stack up this became an embarrassment.
Last year the government created bodies called regional schools commissioners, as new appointed agents of the state, to do the job for them. In practice, this means that one person per region with a small staff and an advisory board is managing the whole thing. Unsurprisingly, the commissioners have so far shown limited capacity to cope, as well as limited expertise. Yet the new bill will extend their wide-ranging powers over maintained schools too, bypassing or overruling local authorities as they see fit.
How will they intervene? The idea is that academy schools will fly in to take on the job once carried out by specialist advisory staff employed by the local authority. Nobody seems to know how academies will carry out this role. And now, Ofsted has announced that new schools (the vast majority of which are free schools and academies) will not be inspected at all in their first three years.
• A longer version of this article is available on the website as Schools: the long arm of the state