Goodbye and good riddance to (most of) the Schools Bill

By Geoff Barton
General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders

It’s official: the Schools Bill is no more. Just eight months after being launched amid the customary blaze of over-hyped rhetoric its demise was confirmed this week by Education Secretary Gillian Keegan.

It is unlikely to be lamented. Its central aim was to underpin a move to full academisation with every school in a trust by 2030. Complicated organisational changes are hardly likely to inspire the public, and can prove a wearisome distraction for school leaders who are trying to cope with funding and teacher shortages. 

To make matters worse, the measures first proposed in the Bill over the running of academies appeared to be a Whitehall power grab, undermining the promise of more autonomy which was the founding principle of academisation, and instead piling up extraordinary new potential powers to the Secretary of State. These proposals were swiftly and rightly jettisoned after meeting fierce criticism in the House of Lords – especially by some former education ministers.

Since then, the Bill has been on ice during the prolonged period of turmoil at the top of government and the new administration has obviously now decided that it is all too much bother.

The Education Secretary made a brave attempt to present this in a positive light, insisting that the decision was the result of reprioritising parliamentary time and that ministers remained committed to the objectives of the Bill. 

However, the decision leaves a lot of questions about government policy. The objective of full academisation – always vague in terms of how this would actually happen – is now even vaguer. 

Is the government really still intent on pursuing structural reform rather than dealing with the funding and teacher supply crisis? And if so, what will it actually do and when?

And then there is the White Paper, which accompanied the Bill, with its central – and equally over-hyped – objective of raising attainment in English and maths with an arbitrary target of 90% of children reaching the expected standard in KS2 tests by 2030. The scrapping of the Bill does not directly affect that ambition, but at no point either has it been clear how this will be achieved. What exactly is the plan?

Amidst the wreckage, it is a shame that some good measures in the Bill – yes, there were some – are collateral damage. Most notable was the long overdue plan for a mandatory register of children not in school (which the Education Secretary says will still be prioritised) and stronger powers for Ofsted to identify and investigate illegal schools.

In summary then, this has all been yet another sorry episode in how not to run an important public service, and something which has often seemed to exist in a parallel universe far removed from the things which actually matter to parents and children – teaching, learning, the curriculum, that sort of thing.

But it also leaves a big question mark over whether the new-look government has a plan for education at all, and, if so, what it might be. There was a hint in the Autumn Statement with the appointment of Sir Michael Barber to implement skills reforms that there might be some new thinking about rebalancing the curriculum. On closer examination, however, the reforms mentioned are those which are already in the pipeline – T-levels and the like – rather than anything more profound.

The impression at this stage then is that this is an administration which is probably focused on nothing more ambitious than reaching the next election with as little upset as possible. 

Its big problem, of course, is that the education sector is creaking under the strain of financial pressures and an increasingly serious teacher supply problem, and that its workforce is demoralised and worn down.

Only a few days ago, the latest initial teacher training census showed the government had yet again missed its recruitment target for trainee secondary teachers, this time by around 40%. Some subjects recruited less than half the number needed, including physics which achieved only 17% of target, modern foreign languages (34%), and computing (30%).

So, if the government is interested in making its mark on education in the 18 months or so before the next General Election, it needs look no further than the interlinked issues of teacher supply and funding. 

A bold and ambitious strategy to attract and retain teachers, worked out with the education sector and backed by sufficient resources, would make a real difference to real children in real classrooms. 

What nobody needs – please - is more structural tinkering and grabbed-from-thin-air targets.

Geoff Barton is ASCL General Secretary.
Posted: 09/12/2022 10:33:03