Sunday, July 25, 2010

“The Secretary of State may enter into Academy arrangements with any person”

So reads the first line of the Academies Bill, which the government is pushing through parliament with the kind of haste usually reserved for emergency anti-terrorism legislation. It’s expected to get passed into law early next week. And, as befits its opening, it does devote a great deal of attention to giving Michael Gove more power.

Why the rush to get it enacted? Of course a government that thinks it has a good policy on its hands wants to get it up and running ASAP, but you could say that about any Bill.

Gove has a useful political skill: he knows how to make empty bluster sound like the sharp, forensic workings of a keen intellect. In his recent interview on Today, he said that of course there has been ample scrutiny: the idea of allowing all schools to become academies had been discussed a lot over the last few years and the Tory manifesto proposal had been debated during the election campaign.*

This is vacuous tripe and he knows it. There’s a world of difference between forming an opinion on a policy in principle and the close scrutiny required to test whether a Bill will indeed achieve what it aims to and check it for unintended consequences. Parliament has just not had the chance to do this properly, and certainly the 232 new MPs hadn’t previously been able to debate it.

So, in the spirit of the big society, I’ve had a quick look myself. Of course, I have no particular expertise.

The desire to minimise consultation and accountability isn’t just a feature of the parliamentary process; it’s key to how the new academies will be set up. Under John Major, would-be grant-maintained schools had to hold a parental ballot before opting out of LEA control, but under Gove’s law, things will work differently:

(5) Consultation on conversion
  1. Before a maintained school in England is converted into an Academy, the school’s governing body must consult such persons as they think appropriate.
  2. The consultation must be on the question of whether the school should be converted into an Academy.
  3. The consultation may take place before or after an Academy order, or an application for an Academy order, has been made in respect of the school.

There’s nothing to suggest any check on whom a governing body considers “appropriate” consultees. Themselves? Their friends? And there’s nothing to suggest that they need to abide by the views of those consulted. And what a wonderful idea to allow them to consult after the decision has already been made.

Gove himself is not required to check whether such consultation has taken place, nor to do any consulting of his own when deciding whether to approve an application, nor to make public the grounds on which he makes these decisions.

But he does appear to be a fan of consulting people after the event. The Sunday Times (paywall) reports that he is already writing to schools and approving their applications - before the Bill has even been passed.

If this is true as reported, then he’s acting illegally. I suspect that it’s not quite that stark, but rather that he’s told schools what decision he’ll make just as soon as he’s legally able to. Even so, there is still scope for the Bill to be amended, so neither he nor the applying governing bodies can know exactly what the deal will be, and no one can have been consulted meaningfully.

This Bill is not about ‘parent power’. It’s about Gove’s power to bypass local councils and parliament, and it’s about governing bodies being able to bypass parents.

Is it a good idea to change the academies programme from being a way to rescue failing schools into an optional upgrade for potentially any school? What will be the effect not just on the schools that go for it but also on the wider education system? I’m afraid I’ve not had the chance to think this through. I’m not sure who has.

* The Lib Dem manifesto pledged to “replace Academies with our own model of ‘Sponsor-Managed Schools’. These schools will be commissioned by and accountable to local authorities and not Whitehall”. Oh well.

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