All schools in England should join academy chains in a bid to end the current “pick and mix” system that exists, the Education Secretary has said.
Gavin Williamson said the pandemic has shown that it is “no longer viable for schools to be single entities” as they need the “safety net of a strong family”.
In a speech to the Confederation of School Trusts’ virtual conference, South Staffordshire MP Mr Williamson said he wants to work towards a “single model” school system where 100% of pupils across the country are taught in academies.
But school leaders’ unions have criticised him for “obsessing” over different types of structures at a time when schools have been at the heart of the response to the Covid-19 crisis.
Mr Williamson announced a pilot programme with the Church of England and the Catholic Church to set up new church academy trusts, and set out plans for a “try before you buy” scheme to allow schools to link up with chains for a trial period before deciding whether they want to convert.
He said: “I see no reason why every local authority-maintained school in the country shouldn’t consider taking up this opportunity as soon as possible to put them in the best position to decide whether joining a specific trust is right for them.”
Academies, which receive their funding directly from the Government rather than through a local authority and have more freedom than council-run schools, were first introduced by the Labour government, but the programme accelerated under the Conservatives.
Mr Williamson told the conference: “Today, over 50% of pupils in state-funded education study in academies, but we want to go further because strong multi-academy trusts are the best structure to enable schools and teachers to deliver consistently good outcomes for all of their pupils.
“The Government’s vision is for every school to be part of a family of schools in a strong multi-academy trust. For me, it’s not about ideology, nor am I proposing structural change just for the sake of it.
“Our ambition is for more schools to benefit from being part of a strong family because multi-academy trusts are the best way to advance education for the public benefit, and can deliver clear benefits for teaching and pupil outcomes.”
He added: “Already we know that many pupils have lost ground because of the disruption caused by the pandemic. But those who are in schools that are struggling, this will mean catching up will be even more of a challenge.
“I’m not prepared to let children miss out in this way and I know that you aren’t either.
“I want to see us break away from our current pick and mix structure of a school system and move towards a single model, one that is built on a foundation of strong multi-academy trusts, and I’m actively looking at how we can make that happen.”
Shadow education secretary Kate Green said the minister’s vision – of all schools becoming part of an academy trust – is based on a “simplistic dichotomy between strong trusts and failing maintained schools”.
Addressing the conference, the Labour MP for Stretford and Urmston said: “The reality is more complicated, with all the evidence demonstrating that it’s the quality of teaching and school leadership, not structure, that determines the school’s success for its children and pupils.”
Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, said: “For some schools converting to academy status can be a positive step and we continue to support the right of schools to choose to convert where it’s in the interests of the school and the community it serves.
“But we remain strongly opposed to forced academisation. Now is not the time for the Government to begin obsessing about different types of structures again – there is already enough to do without additional distractions.”
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said: “We support the aim of increasing and strengthening collaboration between schools but we are concerned that the Government is obsessed with the narrow idea that this has to be done through MAT expansion.”
During his speech, Mr Williamson also announced plans for a national behaviour survey each term, which will track low-level disruption and other incidents of challenging behaviour in schools.
But he stressed: “I want to make absolutely clear that this will not provide school-level data or be used as a school performance measure.
“Instead it’s going to allow us to build up a national picture of behaviour in schools over time, and act as a signpost to what schools need.”
Mr Williamson added that the Department for Education will be consulting on how it can help more heads to remove mobile phones from schools.
But the ASCL’s Mr Barton called the Government’s measures for tackling poor behaviour in schools “thin gruel”.
“Perhaps most dispiriting, as we emerge from a national crisis that has further widened the gap between advantaged and disadvantaged children, is that the Secretary of State for Education thinks that tinkering with structures, issuing surveys and fixating on mobile phones represents any part of the solution,” he said.