NAHT, along with ATL, NUT, UNISON and the NGA, along with support from PTA-UK, have produced a joint briefing on the Education and Adoption Bill. We are concerned that the Bill will silence the voices of parents, governors and local authorities in respect of both school standards and the right to a voice over the future of their local school. This briefing is for peers involved in the Bill's second reading, and is intended to set out our joint concerns that go to the heart of this legislation.
The Education and Adoption Bill
Lords Second Reading, 20 October 2015
Leading voices in education NAHT, ATL, NUT, UNISON and NGA, along with support from PTA-UK, have produced this briefing on the central provisions within the Education and Adoption Bill. There are serious and significant challenges facing our school system today including funding, recruitment and pupil places. We believe the Bill focuses too much on school types, and will silence the voices of parents, governors and local authorities in respect of both school standards and the right to a voice over the future of their local school.
The ‘Democratic deficit’
Parents: At present, the Academies Act 2010 requires the governing body of a school to consult parents before the school is converted into an academy. The Education and Adoption Bill would remove these requirements where a school is told that it must become an academy because it has been deemed ‘failing’ or ‘coasting’. This denies parents and staff their only reasonable opportunity to be involved in what can be a fundamental change to the ethos of their school, including a choice over a sponsor. We would like to see these clauses removed so that consultations can continue and can remain meaningful, open and transparent. Parents agree with this; a PTA-UK survey has shown that 97 per cent of parents want to be consulted when big changes are made to how their school is run.
Governors: Currently, when a school is issued with a warning notice, the school’s governing body has an opportunity to respond. The Bill seeks to remove that right. It cannot be good administration for governors to be given a warning notice about their school’s performance but then not to be given a reasonable opportunity to outline their plans for improvement. In addition, where a school is issued with an academy order, the Bill requires governors to work immediately towards conversion, even if they do not believe this to be in the pupils’ best interests. We would like to see these clauses removed so that parents, governors and school staff can remain included in the process of improving their school.
Local authorities: Right now, only local authorities have the power to issue a warning notice to a maintained school. The Bill would extend this power to the Secretary of State. Any existing notices issued by local authorities would be superseded by those issued by the Secretary of State. Local authorities would be no longer able to issue notices without permission from Whitehall. Under the Bill’s proposals, governors or local authorities would only have the option of a High Court judicial review if they wished to challenge what they believed to be a faulty or unjustified warning notice; a costly and disproportionately complicated route.
We believe the increased powers being given to the Secretary of State under this Bill will mean that local authorities, governing bodies and parents will lose a significant democratic right.
The new powers in the Bill will mean that the people who make up school communities will be left without important opportunities to express legitimate and sound reservations about what Whitehall proposes for their school.
People with local knowledge and skills should be allowed to challenge the opaque and centralised process of academisation and the Secretary of State’s choice of academy sponsor.
The Bill will impose a new duty on the Secretary of State to turn schools judged by Ofsted as requiring significant improvement, or those in special measures, into sponsored academies. The Bill also creates a new definition of a ‘coasting school’ which would also be ‘eligible for intervention’. We have four areas of concern about these provisions:
Evidence: There is no evidence that academisation alone improves educational standards. The National Foundation for Educational Research concluded that “the amount of attainment progress made by pupils in sponsored and converter academies is not greater than in maintained schools with similar characteristics” . We question whether the government should force schools into becoming academies when the evidence that academies are higher performing does not stand up to scrutiny and when other options are available.
Inspection: Whilst Ofsted is permitted to inspect local authorities, the government prevents it from inspecting academy chains. The DfE does have data on academy chain performance but has still not made this public. This compounds the lack of evidence that academies raise standards.
Definition: The first clause of the Bill creates the new definition of ‘coasting schools’ which would come into force from September 2016. Maintained schools labelled in this way will be at risk of forced academisation. The definition of a ‘coasting school’ was set out on 30th June this year and relies solely on attainment data, taking no account of the individual circumstances of schools. Research shows that the ‘coasting’ measure will disproportionately impact upon schools with disadvantaged pupils, not those in the “leafy areas” as the government has claimed.
Expansion: The government has said it would like to see all 16,788 state funded primary schools and all 3,329 state funded secondary schools in England become academies. Many academy chain sponsors have themselves expressed major misgivings about funding, capacity and the government’s ability to manage further expansion. There are not enough academy chains with the ability to run all of England’s schools, and no great rush of new providers has been detected.
The Secretary of State already has a statutory power to turn schools into academies in certain specified circumstances.
We also believe that the ‘coasting’ definition is an unhelpful and confusing extra layer of bureaucracy.
It relies on a three year accumulation of data, so it is no quicker at identifying weakness than the Ofsted inspection system. Equally, we do not believe that schools should be judged on raw data alone as this takes no account of the wider work that schools do.
Far from allowing local expertise to drive improvement, the provisions within the bill centralise the school improvement process in Westminster and push the power to improve schools further away from the schools themselves. A centralised school improvement process, with a Secretary of State-directed academisation of schools, is no guarantee of success.
The Bill fails to address fundamental issues within education: the recruitment and retention of teachers, unsupported leadership, the school places crisis and overstretched school budgets. It also undermines good governance, the effective oversight of the school system, and denies parents fundamental rights to be involved in their children’s education. We therefore ask the government to reconsider the legislation and to work with schools to focus on the real challenges in education today.