The scrapping of the Education Bill

Frances Woodhead, Bevan Brittan

The Education Secretary’s decision to drop proposed legislation that would have seen the academisation of all schools in England mirrors the new Government’s approach to devolution, writes Frances Woodhead.

The forced ‘academisation’ of thousands of schools in the UK will not take place after all.

The new Education Secretary, Justine Greening, recently announced that the Government has dropped its plan for the Education Bill which was included in the Queen’s Speech and outlined in the “Education for All” white paper. The plans were originally unveiled by George Osborne in the March budget speech so the announcement to drop the Bill are in part a reflection of the new government and its own developing strategy. The Bill would have forced many schools to become academies and, to a large degree, removed the role of councils in driving up standards in education.

However, the Education Secretary underlined that the Government remains committed to allowing schools the benefits of the freedom and autonomy of academy status if they want it, but added: “Our focus is on building capacity in the system and encouraging schools to convert voluntarily.”

Nevertheless, other big changes could still lie ahead. Ms Greening also said that a consultation would continue on the “Schools that Work for Everyone” green paper, which includes lifting the ban on new grammar schools and allowing faith schools to select 100% of pupils based on their faith.

In addition, she announced a new Technical and Further Education Bill which would introduce “an effective insolvency regime for further education and sixth form colleges to protect students and streamline routes into employment.” These two objectives will bring into focus the imperative for the further education sector to be financially accountable and deliver courses which students value. This may well encourage institutions to look for alternative funding streams from combined authorities and industry and to offer courses which are highly relevant to the needs of local employers.

There had been many concerns raised about the Education Bill, from MPs, teachers and the Local Government Association, both in respect of forcing schools to become academies and the plans to reintroduce grammar schools.

So the change of plan on academies has been widely welcomed since it enables councils to have a strong local role in supporting school improvement and high standards of education for all children. Local Government Association children and young people board chair Richard Watts, for example, said the move was “the right decision and shows the Government has been listening to our concerns.”

It is hoped that this decision reflects an underlying and ongoing commitment from the Government to work with councils, recognising the important role they play and also the value of locally made decisions.

The U-turn sits well alongside the continued commitment to devolution which recognises that success is more likely where plans are initiated by local councils who know and understand their area and local need. The common thread running through all these themes is a requirement from government to drive efficiency, deliver more with less resource, and improve the economy through regeneration projects. A well-educated workforce is an important part of that and is doubtless a key factor behind the Government’s recognition that education decisions are best made locally.

So this now puts the ball back in councils’ courts, as it were – the onus will be on them to propose education ideas and solutions which work in their locality and form governance arrangements that support local accountability and focus on local priorities.

With the Skills Agenda a big priority for most councils and combined authorities, it will be important that they take the opportunity to input into the on-going green paper consultation so as to seek to ensure that there is a joined up approach to the related debates about skills and regeneration.

Amidst all the many and competing pressures facing local authorities, education must remain high on the agenda. Local authorities, combined authorities, schools, academies and the further and higher education sector need to continue to strive to work together as effectively as possible to ensure that students are well equipped for the future.

Whilst in some ways the world has become more local – through devolution for example – in other ways it is becoming more global. We have to compete on the world stage and produce a new generation with the skills to enable them to do that. Policy and delivery around education need to come together if the plans of innovative local authorities who are so passionate about the communities they serve are to come to fruition.

 

This article was first published in Local Government Lawyer: http://localgovernmentlawyer.co.uk/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=28889