Government drops plans to force all schools in England to become academies
The Government has dropped plans to force all schools in England to become academies in the face of opposition from teaching unions, Tory MPs and councils.
The U-turn by Education Secretary Nicky Morgan comes after a backlash to the proposal to take schools out of local authority control by 2022.
Ministers still hope that a large number of schools will choose to convert to academies, but the plan is now an "aspiration" rather than a compulsory policy, the Department for Education said.
The Government announced plans in its Budget to force around 17,000 mainstream schools in England to be taken out of the control of local education authorities.
Chancellor George Osborne said that all schools will either have to convert by 2020 or be committed to doing so by 2022.
But the plans have come under intense criticism, including from Tory council chiefs, and ministers faced a potential revolt from backbench MPs.
With the Government's slender majority in the Commons, there was a chance Mrs Morgan could have faced a humiliating defeat if she pushed ahead with the plans.
The Department for Education (DfE) said ministers had listened to feedback from MPs, teachers, school leaders and parents since publishing the proposals in a White Paper.
Officials stressed the Government was still committed to seeing all schools becoming academies, but new laws forcing the "blanket conversion" of all schools will no longer be necessary.
Mrs Morgan said: " Making every school an academy is the best way to ensure every child, regardless of birth or background, has access to a world-class education.
"I am today reaffirming our determination to see all schools become academies. However, having listened to the feedback from Parliamentary colleagues and the education sector we will now change the path to reaching that goal.
"By focusing our efforts on those schools most at risk of failing young people, and encouraging 'good' and 'outstanding' schools to seize the opportunities of conversion, we will ensure the continued growth of the academy programme, empowering frontline heads and school leads, and transforming even more children's education."
NASUWT general secretary Chris Keates said: "This is another humiliating failure for the Chancellor of the Exchequer.
"Teachers, school leaders and schools have been subjected to an unnecessary period of anxiety and panic as a result of his ill-conceived and politically motivated statement, which did not even command the support of the Tory rank and file, particularly in local councils, and caused rebellion in his own ranks.
"It is disgraceful that teachers and school leaders, already under enormous pressure and stress, were ever subjected to this."
Under-performing schools will still be required to convert to academies where they can benefit from a local sponsor, while good schools will also be supported if they wish to change status.
In the last month 104 directive academy orders have been issued to failing schools, while the most recent monthly figures show 227 schools have put in applications to convert - the highest since the programme began.
The Government is also set to introduce powers which could trigger the conversion of all schools within a local authority if it is failing to meet a "minimum performance threshold", or if a "critical mass" of schools in the area have already become academies and the council can no longer viably support its remaining schools.
Ms Keates said: " Although the plan to convert every school to an academy has been dropped, the Government is still subjecting schools in particular Ofsted categories to forced academisation and still regards structural change as the answer to raising standards.
"This aspect of the academisation policy has not changed and the NASUWT will continue to challenge it."
Shadow education secretary Lucy Powell said: "It is welcome news that the Tory Government has finally listened to Labour and the alliance of head teachers, parents and local government who opposed these plans, and dropped the forced academisation of all schools.
"It is frankly a humiliating climbdown for David Cameron and his Education Secretary, who just weeks ago were insisting they would plough on with the policy regardless.
"There remain enormous challenges facing our schools under the Tories, and their fixation with structures has distracted school leaders and created panic in the schools system, at the expense of raising standards.
"Ministers must urgently tackle the serious problems they have created in education, including school budgets falling in real terms for the first time in 20 years, chronic shortages of teachers, not enough good school places, and chaos and confusion in the exams system. This Government's failed approach to education is letting down our children and will hold back young people for years to come."
Tory former leadership contender David Davis welcomed the U-turn.
He said: " This is an intelligent concession by the Government.
"Along with a number of my colleagues, I expressed concerns about aspects of the Government's academisation proposals, and the Government has quite rightly considered our concerns and thought again.
"While I will need to examine the details of the Government's concessions, I welcome this sensible move by the Government."
Roy Perry, chairman of the Local Government Association's children and young people board, said: "We are delighted that the Government is listening to our strong opposition to forced academisation, which has been echoed by MPs, teachers and parents and backed up by evidence.
"Our recent analysis of the grades achieved by all schools under the more rigorous Ofsted inspection framework proved that 81% of council-maintained schools are rated as 'good' or 'outstanding', compared to 73% of academies and 79% of free schools. It is right that these schools should not be forced down the academy route unless they make that decision themselves."
Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers union, said: "Although Nicky Morgan says she is in a 'listening' Government, she has been very hard of hearing since the forced academies policy was announced in the Budget.
"It has taken the combined efforts of parents, teachers, school leaders, governors, Conservative councillors, MPs and education unions to get the Government to see sense and to back away from a policy which had no rationale and no merit."
But Dr Bousted warned there was still "potential for political shenanigans against local authorities" if the Government takes powers to force all schools in "failing" councils to convert to academy status.
Ofsted chief Sir Michael Wilshaw said: "I have been clear that academisation can lead to rapid improvements and support the principle of transferring more power and resource to the frontline. I am also in favour of any steps that bring greater clarity and coherence to our current system."
Unison head of education Jon Richards said: "It's reassuring that ministers have listened to the many arguments put to them and decided against pursing their ill-thought out plans to force all maintained schools in England to become academies.
"The Government claims academy status means greater autonomy for individual school heads, but the reality for head teachers in multi-academy chains is proving very different.
"Yesterday's shock announcement by the Academies Transformation Trust of redundancies across its schools in the Midlands and the East of England left its 21 heads reeling.
"Government cuts to education spending are having a huge impact on schools everywhere, but too many academies are making bigger cuts than necessary.
"Academies may be less able to weather the storm than maintained schools, and that will be of huge concern to the many parents whose children attend them."