Plans to turn every school in England into an academy a 'Big Bang' moment for education

All schools are set to be transformed into academies. Credit: PA

A Big Bang in education policy is on the way. It's quite likely that if your child is at a primary, their school is about to change over the next five or six years... And about a 40% chance that if they are at a secondary, their school is also about to change as all schools will now need to become academies.

Right now we have some 17,500 primary schools. The Government is now to make all of them academies; at the moment, only 17% of them are. At secondary level, 32% of schools are still not academies and will need to convert.

For several years now, government advisers behind the scenes have been looking to make this change...but they usually blinked at the last moment. Then David Cameron put it in his conference speech last October...and now it will happen. It really is quite a Big Bang in education for this country.

So what will the actual difference be? Academy heads are free of local authority control, they can chose what their curriculum is and they set pay rates for their staff.

On Monday's News at Ten we looked at the underwhelming performance of British kids at maths.

Part of the problem here is that it isn't very easy right now to recruit superb maths teachers. Teaching can’t compete in salary terms with the City and finance for maths graduates.

David Cameron put the change in his conference speech last October. Credit: PA

But in the future a head could decide they want to boost salaries for maths teachers and so boost maths teaching. That’s just one example. It could be anything. Drama classes, chemistry, whatever. The point is that they will get the chance to vary what they teach and how much they pay.

The Tories think that teachers know better than local authorities. That's the theory anyway.

But there are risks.

First of all: who will end up monitoring these schools? These many thousands of schools will not all float around like apples in a bucket. Instead they will usually join what is called a chain - it allows them to share some back office functions and be given overall direction.

Some worry these chains could end up being too much like the local authorities they are replacing. The chief inspector of schools, Sir Michael Wilshaw, has already raised concerns that these chains may not be good enough for the current set-up, let alone this expanded role. Just last week he wrote to education secretary Nicky Morgan, saying: "Many of the trusts manifested the same weaknesses as the worst performing local authorities." So the Government must work on this.

And then what about standards? Can we say with any certainty that academies have boosted the performance of the kids at school? Well, it appears too early to say.

The changes are being unveiled as part of the Budget. Credit: PA

The international experts that compare Britain’s education system with others - the OECD team always so damning about our educational attainment compared to the South Koreans and Poles and so on - suggest it is not possible yet to see a straightforward link between how well pupils do, and whether or not a school is independent of local authority control or not.

There have been academy successes - but many point out that the ones that have blossomed have been the early models which were sponsored academies. They did see a faster-than-average improvement but perhaps this was to be expected given these were schools taken over because they were underperforming and so starting from a low base.

Last year the education select committee said that until the attainment record becomes crystal clear the Government "should stop exaggerating the success of academies and be cautious about firm conclusions except where the evidence merits it. Academisation [ugghh, what a nasty phrase] is not always successful nor is it the only proven alternative for a struggling school." My square brackets.

The OECD have said that autonomous schools like academies can drive up standards for their kids where the oversight is strong. The challenge for the Government is how to provide that oversight without stifling the independence of these new academies

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