The schools bill – government’s proposed blueprint to reform the academy system and lay the groundwork to finish off its multi-academy trust revolution – has finally been ditched.
What happens now? Schools Week investigates…
It’s official. On Wednesday the education secretary announced the sinking of the schools bill.
But while Gillian Keegan said it “will not progress”, she also said she remained “committed” to its aims – and signalled various measures that would make a comeback.
The government still hopes to introduce powers and duties over home, private and illegal schooling, teacher misconduct, council attendance work and pupils not in school.
It will also seek to revive plans removing barriers to faith and grammar schools joining multi-academy trusts, and push national funding formula reforms without legislation.
But the remaining academy reforms that required new laws have been ditched.
New academy standards, trust intervention powers and support for councils that want to force school conversions en-masse are among the major casualties.
Ministers now face attempting to drive academy take-up with their credibility shattered and powers constrained.
The DfE had said the bill would “pave the way” for all schools to join strong trusts, with rules aiming to drive up standards and steer more schools into MATs by 2030.
The DfE itself had dubbed existing academy rules “complex,” “inconsistent” and “ineffective”.
Regulatory review continues
The academy regulatory review, set up to decide what new academy standards should look like and shape future powers, will now simply define what a “strong trust” looks like.
A recent MAT trustee poll by the National Governance Association showed most supported more stringent trust standards and inspections.
Cathie Paine, the chief executive of REAch2, said the sector needed clarity and transparency about how trusts should grow, collaboration to be “hardwired”, and high performance to be defined.
“We all know there are schools performing well in key stage 2, and yet their curriculums are neither broad nor balanced.”
Paul Tarn, the chief executive of Delta Academies Trust, said trusts’ control over academy clusters should be kept under review, using local feedback and metrics that included not only academic outcomes and ratings, but also attendance, exclusions and how they spend funds.
Poor performers “should be asked to hand over those academies” after five years.
But Leora Cruddas, the chief executive of the Confederation of School Trusts and review adviser, warned the government must not “pin down the definition” so as to curb trust innovation and creativity.
And others believe such work is now useless. Hugh Greenway, the chief executive of the Elliot Foundation, said defining trust strength was a “waste of time and money”.
Intervention without new powers
Even if ministers can agree on a definition of a “strong trust”, they face an uphill struggle promoting it without legislative powers.
Schools Week recently reported on the DfE’s inability to intervene directly in one trust, despite its four “inadequate” ratings in six years.
But the growing use of non-statutory guidance faces resistance from unions, including the leaders’ union ASCL, while many maintained schools can simply ignore pressure to academise.
MAT inspections are under consideration, but might also require legislation. Greenway warned they would encourage “performative compliance – behaving like strong trusts without actually being one”.
Some in the sector fear trust standards could alternatively be shoe-horned without legislation into the trust handbook, which trusts must comply with or risk losing schools.
A new taskforce on cutting red tape – likely to be welcomed in principle – could also similarly provide a backdoor route to greater intervention.
But the widening of the handbook beyond finances last year sparked a sector revolt.
Mark Lehain, an ex-DfE special adviser and now head of education at the Centre for Policy Studies, said one option was publishing a catalogue of metrics – encouraging improvement and helping schools choose trusts.
But Cruddas noted the government had already “intimated” the definition could instead inform regional director decisions over which trusts take on schools.
Proposals in the schools white paper that do not require new laws – such as the “expectation” all schools have a 32.5 hour day – also remain.
Momentum towards 2030
The other big question for ministers is how far the bill’s demise – on top of the summer’s political chaos and Labour’s surge in the polls – undermines the white paper vision for all schools to join trusts.
A key relevant bill reform – letting councils request ministers academise their schools en-masse irrespective of governors’ consent – is also dead.
One government source suggested non-legislative measures may still emerge to facilitate bulk conversions and council-established MATs are likely to go ahead as they do not require legislation.
But political uncertainty now means “quite a lot” of maintained and standalone academy leaders will now continue to say “let’s wait and see”, according to ASCL’s Julie McCulloch.
Dr Mark Fenton, the chief executive of the Grammar School Heads Association (GSHA), said the bill’s demise was “good news” for the survival of strong single-academy trusts.
Other ‘incentives’ needed for schools to convert
Even Cruddas, who supports the all-MAT vision, said: “Let’s not fight about 2030.”
Nigel Genders, the chief education officer at the Church of England education service, said the government needed “some other way to incentivise” stronger schools to convert – or risk insufficient trust capacity to take on those deemed underperforming.
He voiced his disappointment the bill had not progressed on removing various barriers to church schools joining MATs, but welcomed Keegan’s commitment to prioritise this.
Fenton also said GSHA remained committed to working with the government to tackle grammar school concerns about their status within MATs.
John Jolly, the chief executive of the parents’ charity Parentkind, also said reforms must “urgently” address an “accountability gap” between MATs and parents, backing new duties to consult parents.
But the key question is whether ministers can now revive credibility at all.
As Bridget Phillipson, the shadow education secretary, wrote on Wednesday: “Their schools bill was to be their flagship legislation on education. And today it’s gone.”