Labour attack ‘forced academies plan’ in Opposition day debate

Lucy Powell.
Lucy Powell.
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CONTROVERSIAL PLANS to force all schools to become academies are opposed by some Conservatives, council leaders and headteachers unions and are a distraction which could damage standards, Labour has claimed.

Shadow education secretary Lucy Powell questioned why the Government was pushing ahead with this plan when it already had the powers to turn underperforming schools into academies.

She said the proposal was not driven by raising standards but because the Government was “obsessed with school structures.”

Academies are run outside of council education authorities with greater freedom over curriculum, pay and timetables. In its new White Paper the Government says it expects most schools will join multi-academy trusts.

Ms Powell said: “What choice is there in a one size fits all policy? What is autonomous about forcing a highly performing school into an academy chain?” Ms Powell also highlighted concerns raised by Ofsted’s chief inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw who wrote to Education Secretary Nicky Morgan about shortcomings inspectors had found in some schools inside some of the country’s biggest academy chains.

The issue of giving schools, governors and parents choice was raised by several Conservatives including Jason McCartney, MP for the Colne Valley.

Mrs Morgan said Labour’s motion was a “deliberate misinterpretation” of the Government’s proposals. She said: “The question is why not spread the transformation that we have seen via the academies across the country and enable excellence for every child.”

Opening the opposition day debate Ms Powell had said: “What about the small village school which this White Paper makes clear can’t be a standalone academy? Where will their autonomy be? I see some nods from the (Tory) benches opposite to this point.”

The evidence that children perform better in academies is “underwhelming at best”, Ms Powell said, because the majority of new good and outstanding school places since the Tories took power were in primaries, where academisation was limited.

“The Government’s plan has been met with such concern even by the very school leaders they claim to be supporting because it is a bad policy with no evidence base,” Ms Powell said.

“It is yet another policy from this Government that obsesses with school structures instead of standards.

“What’s more, given the very real pressures being faced by schools today - huge teacher shortages, real terms cuts to school budgets for the first time in 20 years, major overhauls to curriculums, assessments and exams - the idea that heads should be spending time, money and energy on a £1.3 billion top down reorganisation of our school system is at best a distraction and at worst will have a very damaging impact on school standards.”

Mrs Morgan said that Ms Powell’s interventions were “starting to follow an all too familiar pattern of scaremongering and then ignoring the achievements of both the profession and our education system”, adding: “I note that since her appointment she has yet to propose a single positive idea.”

The Government she said had spent £23 billion so far on building new accommodation, creating 600,000 more school places since 2010.

Intervening, Tory Tim Loughton, a former children’s minister, said he was a supporter of the academies programme and was “disappointed to see the Opposition go cold on one of their proudest innovations”.

However he added: “As a Conservative I also believe in choice, so could she outline to me the downside of allowing academies to migrate organically, or schools to migrate organically if they choose to, to academy status, rather than imposing a compulsory and arbitrary time line on them.”

Ms Morgan said the Government was allowing six years for the change to be made.

She added: “We want parents not just to be engaged via governing bodies but we want them to be engaged via parent councils, by the ability to make complaints, to be involved in their child’s education, to be aware of how their child is being taught. There are many, many more ways in addition to being parent governors.”