The Education Bill

John Freeman
Tuesday, May 19, 2015

The Secretary of State for Education, Nicky Morgan, has given an extended interview to the Sunday Telegraph setting out her plans for an Education Bill. The bill is expected to feature in the Queen’s Speech on Wednesday, 27 May.

The Secretary of State said she was convinced that weak schools could be improved rapidly by being taken over by successful academy chains, but that this approach was too often being blocked by “local opponents”, thus denying children the “better education they deserve”. She also intends to introduce powers to intervene in schools that are not failing but “coasting”: “It is not OK to be just above the level of failing.” The Secretary of State also highlighted geographic variation in school standards, highlighting Wirral (60% 5A*-C GCSE) and Knowsley (35% 5A*-C GCSE).

So will this work in practice?

Perhaps the most contentious areas are the proposals to intervene in many more schools much more quickly – “within hours”. These proposals would require a very significant management capacity to be available at very short notice, and it is by no means obvious that such capacity exists or could be created within any likely resource envelope. It seems unlikely that “new leadership” and “support from other excellent schools and heads” could be available at very short notice.

It is not clear how much demand (and associated capacity) there is among charities and parents’ groups to set up free schools. Unless the new free schools are to be set up in areas of existing demand for school places, there will be an unwelcome diversion of public funds. Significant financial and professional support will be needed to ensure that free schools are set up properly and in a sustainable way. And there are deeper and more fundamental issues about the nature of free schools – they are not nearly as free in practice as many parents’ groups would like them to be.

All this will be happening over a period which will see substantial cuts in school budgets with schools’ spending power reduced as much as 12% over this parliament, and very many head teachers of excellent schools and their governing bodies will be preoccupied with their own school management. The Institute for Fiscal Studies said in its pre-election analysis: “However, all [party policies] could imply real-terms cuts to school spending per head of 7% between 2015/16 and 2019/20. This increases to 9% if we account for increases in National Insurance and pension contributions and to 12% if we also account for the OBR’s (Office for Budget Responsibility) assumption for likely growth in public sector earnings.”

Nothing in the proposals would seem to change the underlying duties of local authorities to improve education for all children, as set out in Sections 13 and 13A of the 1996 Education Act as amended. This is consistent with previous policy as defined by the 2010 Academy Act and the 2011 Education Act.

Apart from these fundamentals, there are a number of other areas where the proposals are either unclear or seem unworkable as they stand.

It is not clear whether the new “coasting” definition will apply to “requires improvement” schools or also to schools that are only just “good”.

It is not clear whether regional schools commissioners will be enshrined in legislation; at present, they operate as local satraps of the Secretary of State.

It is not clear at this stage what the various triggers for action will be, although it seems likely that they will be a combination of Ofsted judgements and performance at Key Stage 2 and Key Stage 4, with new floor targets being introduced.

Although there was mention of the geographic differences with reference to local authorities, there was no specific set of actions in this area.

Finally, it is not clear how practical it would be to introduce a new “fast track” process to convert schools to academies. There are a number of technical and legal issues, including employment and property transfers, which require time to be carried through properly and to avoid challenge.
No doubt all this will become clear when the bill is published.

John Freeman CBE is a former director of children's services and is now a freelance consultant