Academies - a turn or a wiggle?

Pupils in a classroom

It's not long until the Queen's Speech in May, but plenty of time for a bit of a political shimmy by the government.

The controversial plan to make all state schools in England become academies, including good ones, seems to have come as a surprise to some of its own MPs.

But the direction of travel in government thinking has been clear for some time.

Last autumn David Cameron told the party faithful at the Conservative conference: "Every school an academy... and yes, local authorities running schools a thing of the past".

Hurdles to jump

Taken aback by the strength of feeling from both Tory councillors and backbenchers, ministers are looking at where they can persuade or cajole, and where they might need to quietly give ground.

The two main hurdles are the outrage of councils that can point to solid evidence they're doing a good job, and the future of small rural schools.

What you might call the Hampshire problem and the Norfolk problem, although there are plenty of other examples.

The draft plans already suggest councils can take all their expertise and put staff into a not for profit social enterprise to run a multi-academy trust.

Schools could then choose to join it. Several councils are already looking at this option.

Concessions mooted

So could it be made easier, for example, for some councils to oversee a group of academy schools?

If you say yes to Tory-run Hampshire, you might also have to say yes to Labour-run Leeds.

Both can point to evidence they oversee plenty of good schools, who are happy being part of the council's extended family.

And what if they don't have to set up a social enterprise, if it's made even easier to simply re-label some schools?

That would be a major concession, and a big step back from Cameron's vision of ending the role of local councils.

A U-turn in other words, which the government will be reluctant to make unless it has no other option.

There are more than 5,000 primary schools with fewer than 200 pupils in England. That's around a third of the total.

Many of these smaller schools are in rural areas which are traditionally Conservative.

So Education Secretary Nicky Morgan was at pains to make clear to her own sceptical backbenchers this week, they won't be forced into the arms of a big chain of schools.

She told them schools don't have to be part of a multi-academy trust to be an academy.

Money promised

But many smaller schools simply don't see what they would get out of being an academy, on their own or in a group, that they don't already get from their local authority.

The political sweetener here for backbenchers and councillors will be the promise of more money.

A new way of working out how school funding is allocated to each area is to be introduced.

Some of the winners will be more rural areas, there will be some losers in inner cities, which over many years have gradually benefited from financial recognition of deprivation.

This may be enough to give ministers a sales pitch to MPs from the counties and shires who are worried about the future sustainability of small schools.

No coasting

It's easy to forget in all of this that whatever happens to these plans, one new law has already been passed in the last few months making it easier to compel schools to leave the embrace of local councils.

Those judged to be "coasting" by one of the new Regional Schools Commissioners can already be forced over the line.

They have considerable discretion, which means it's not clear how exactly they'll decide which schools will be pushed to convert to academy status.

With the debate about academies now firmly back on the political agenda they may choose to take their time making any contentious decisions.

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