Could your school be forced to become an academy?

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On 21 October the Department for Education (DfE) published a consultation on important new measures to speed up the process whereby a school can be forced to become an academy. They will also introduce new powers of intervention where schools are considered to be ‘coasting’.

Education Secretary Nicky Morgan has said that she wants to stop people obstructing the process by which schools are forced to become academies. She has even accused such people of using “underhand tactics” in order to “deny children the opportunity of success”.

Opponents have pointed out that schools could be converted without any consultation and against the wishes of local communities. Others have pointed out that academisation is “not a magic wand”, and that there is no evidence that it affects standards.

If you want your views heard on these matters, you have until 18 December to respond.

What exactly is being proposed?

The measures are contained in the Education & Adoption Bill currently going through Parliament. They only apply to maintained schools, as academies and free schools operate under a different legal framework.

Firstly, the DfE is consulting on revised guidance on ‘schools causing concern’. The new guidance describes the different roles and responsibilities of local authorities and the nine Regional Schools Commissioners (RSCs) who currently only work with academies.

If a school is inadequate

If a school is judged by Ofsted to require significant improvement or special measures, the local RSC will immediately have to make an ‘academy order’ and find a sponsor for the school. The governing body and the local authority will have to work towards the conversion, including helping the sponsor take responsibility for the school.

If a school is coasting

If an RSC decides a school is ‘coasting’ (see below), they will decide what sort of intervention is needed, based on the school’s characteristics, its current improvement plans and its capacity to improve. They can decide to take no further action; to agree additional support and challenge for the school - for example from a National Leader of Education or a partnership with another school; to appoint additional governors or even replace the governing body; or to make an academy order.

RSCs and local authorities will also be able to issue warning notices to schools that aren’t inadequate or coasting but are causing concern. The notice will explain the action the governing body must take and how, if the school doesn’t comply, it will be eligible for intervention. If the RSC and the local authority disagree about whether to issue a warning notice, the RSC’s opinion will take precedence.

No consultation

Whenever an academy order is made, there will no longer be any requirement to consult on the conversion – a proposal that has caused considerable concern among parents, teachers and commentators.

What is a ‘coasting’ school?

The DfE is also consulting on the definition of ‘coasting’. They propose that it should be a school where performance data fall below a set bar in all three previous years.

From 2016 the bar will be:

  • Primary: less than 85% of pupils achieving expected standards across reading, writing and maths; and pupil progress being below ‘expected’.
  • Secondary: at a level set against the new Progress 8 measure.

In both cases, the bar will be set higher than the minimum ‘floor standard’. The aim is to identify schools where pupils aren’t being stretched to their full capability - as Nicky Morgan put it, “to shine a light on complacency”.

What does it mean for Regional Schools Commissioners (RSCs)?

For the first time the guidance gives RSCs a specific role relating to schools that are not yet academies.

It is not clear how their relationship with local authorities will work, as it will rely on a lot of trust, shared information and shared objectives. It is also not clear whether they will have the capacity to undertake this new work, as they are already stretched overseeing academies, and have recently been accused of inconsistency in the way they work.

It will be interesting to see what responses the DfE receives, and whether any of these proposals change as a result.