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Schools Bill: Who's taking charge?

28 January 11 10:47
Primary school
By Mike Baker

So where is the coalition government's Education Bill taking us?

Is it a move to set free teachers and schools in England, as the government claims?

Or is it, as the National Union of Teachers claims, legislation that "rides roughshod" over the tradition of local democratic accountability of schools?

On one level, it is difficult for the government to deny it is taking more powers to the centre since its own news release declares that the secretary of state is extending his powers to intervene where schools are not up to scratch.

The education secretary will get new powers to close schools not only when they are in "special measures" as now, but in a range of other circumstances too.

But despite this, government supporters say the main shift of power is away from un-elected quangos and remote town halls towards individual schools and teachers in the classroom.

The Bill is a big boost for the creation of academies and free schools and, according to government sources, this is in itself a shift of power down to individual school level.

Indeed, one of the boldest moves (or most brazen, according to your view) is the "presumption" that any newly created school will be an academy or a free school, not a local authority school.

Several other measures are geared towards boosting the number of academies, for example the dropping of the requirement for academies to have a subject specialism and the extension of the programme to sixth form colleges.

The process of converting to academy status is also being made easier.

Schools will not have to begin consultations until after they have applied and they will only have to consult those people they themselves regard as "appropriate".

Even the principle of grouping schools together in federations is to be subservient to the drive for academies - individual schools in a federation will be able to become academies without the consent of the federated governing body.

This might not encourage co-operation and goodwill within a federation.

Cutting quangos

But while academies are free from local authority influence they are not completely independent of central government.

It is central government that determines their funding agreements and it is through these agreements, or contracts, that ministers could, if they wished, direct policy and practice.

For example, although the Bill does not include academies in the several new requirements being imposed on other schools (such as the duty to take part in international surveys of pupil achievement or to provide careers education) it is inconceivable that academies will be exempt.

But instead of being included in the legislation, academies will fall under these requirements via their funding agreements, which set out what they must do in return for their cash.

And, here again, there are signs of the education secretary taking more direct powers.

At present the funding arrangements for academies are conducted by an arm's-length quango, the Young Peoples Learning Agency for England.

But it is to become an executive agency, the Education Funding Agency. As such it will report directly to the secretary of state, not to its own board.

Similarly, the disappearance of several other education quangos will mean that the education secretary will take direct responsibility for a vast range of other system-wide responsibilities.

These include the supply of teachers and other school staff, the disciplining of teachers who break the professional code, and the development of the curriculum and exam systems.

This is being presented as a way of saving money by dismantling the structure of several large quangos, each with its own infrastructure and board.

Where the buck stops

But it also means the secretary of state is heaping a lot of power and responsibility onto his own plate.

As Sir Humphrey of Yes Minister fame might have said: "That's very brave, minister!"

For while it may be good to have the levers of power within your grasp, it also means you are the person with whom the buck stops when things go wrong.

If the number of academies continues to grow at the current rate, the secretary of state will find himself directly responsible for a very large number of schools, maybe even the majority.

In conversation with a group of head teachers this week, the prevailing view was that, whether they like it or not, they will be effectively forced along the academy route, either on financial grounds or because their local authority will no longer have the capacity to support them.

And this is a point that was picked up by the Commons Public Accounts Committee on the very day the Bill was published.

The committee is already alarmed by the lack of audit control and grip over public spending at many academies.

In its report, it says the "governance risks will increase as the number of academies grows".

It adds that, even when there were far fewer academies than now, the Department for Education's resources for monitoring and administering the academies programme were "overstretched".

So there are some early warning signs of potential difficulties ahead.

The Education Bill, say the teaching unions, creates a more atomised and "fragmented" system.

The challenge of this Education Bill will be whether the Education Secretary, and his staff in Whitehall, can keep a close enough monitoring eye on thousands of individual schools to instigate action should things start to go wrong.

Mike Baker is a freelance journalist and broadcaster specialising in education.

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