The Conservatives’ promise to give parents money to run their own schools won all the headlines ahead of the election. But the coalition’s new education secretary Michael Gove is likely to achieve a much more dramatic shakeup of education in England with his invitation to all schools to apply for academy status.
It means schools opting out of local authority control and becoming independent, but state-funded, institutions.
Originally reserved for the most poorly performing schools, Gove is now extending this privilege as a right to 2,600 top rated primary, secondary and special schools. Other schools can apply for the change, and Gove intends his renamed Department for Education to do all it can to help them.
It turns back the clock on more than 140 years of local political oversight of school education in England, dating back to the Victorian school boards and the local education authorities that replaced them in the opening years of the last century.
John Dunford, head of the Association of School and College Leaders, who has seen regular changes of education policy over the years, believes this time something significant is taking place.
“I think it will come to be seen as one of the most radical pieces of legislation for a generation,” he told me.
He sees a large number of England’s secondary schools signing up. For many, the clinching factor will be getting hold of the 10 to 15 percent of state funding that local authorities now retain to pay for shared services, which they will see as insurance against an expected tightening of budgets in coming years.
Then again, secondary schools are far less dependent on local authority assistance than primary schools, which tend to me much smaller, and are not expected, even by Gove, to be rushing to change status.
Concerns have been raised by many, including the Local Government Association, that England is heading for a two-tier education system that will neglect the most difficult and deprived children.
But the three school leaders Gove invited to a journalists briefing on his plans dismissed these fears, saying it was the current system that worked against those most in need of extra help.
Dan Moynihan, Chief Executive of the Harris Federation, which runs nine academies in South London, said no longer having to devote staff time to “endless local authority initiatives” meant teachers could focus on what they were meant to be doing – teaching.
He said: “This kind of status for all schools in England is the beginning of an education revolution which has the potential to transform the life prospects of disadvantaged children across the country.”