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by Jamie Cater 11th May, 2016
3 min read

The lady is for turning

It has been a tough few weeks for Nicky Morgan and the Department for Education. Since the publication of her White Paper after the Budget, there have been protests outside the Department, she has been heckled at two teachers’ conferences, officials have been criticised for not properly accounting for schools’ spending, and not one but two primary school tests have been leaked online before pupils have sat them. These would be enough for any Secretary of State to deal with on their own, but Morgan has also suffered the embarrassment of having to make two major U-turns on key elements of government policy.

The first came on the reception baseline assessment; this was first announced by the Government in 2013, when Michael Gove was still at the head of the DfE. The purpose of the test is to assess pupils in their first term of school, using the results as a baseline from which their progress can be measured throughout school. Schools signed up to the tests, delivered by three approved providers, on a voluntary basis for this academic year, with the Government’s intention for the tests to become mandatory from 2016/17. Last month, the DfE announced that the results from this year’s tests could not be used as a baseline as the tests from the three providers were so different they were not comparable, and would therefore not provide a reliable baseline from which to measure pupil progress.

The tests will now not be mandatory in 2016/17, and Ministers and officials are refusing to say whether they will survive in their current form or be replaced by something else from 2017. Having been met with controversy right from the start, opponents of the ideas – predominantly the teaching unions and not, interestingly, the Labour Party – are claiming victory in light of the Government’s apparent change of heart.

A more high-profile U-turn took place last Friday afternoon when, in the midst of the excitement of election results, it was announced that the central proposal in the White Paper, a fully academised state school system by 2022, was to be shelved. The previous week, Morgan had twice been questioned on the plans in Parliament and twice denied that she would be changing tack. It was a proposal that had met with plenty of opposition, not just among the usual suspects in the education world but among Conservative backbenchers too. Rather than simply make minor concessions to the policy as she had been rumoured to be considering, it was confirmed that academy conversion would no longer be compulsory for good and outstanding schools. Instead, the Government will simply be given additional powers to force schools to become sponsored academies if they are in an underperforming (the precise definition of which is yet to be decided) local authority.

These U-turns have potentially interesting implications for both the politics within Government and education policy over the coming months and years. When Morgan suggested last year that she might be a contender for the Conservative leadership when David Cameron stands down later in this parliament, she was quickly put in her place by Number 10; the Prime Minister’s team will almost certainly lend its support to George Osborne in the future contest. It is perhaps notable, then, that it was the Chancellor who was able to announce the academisation policy to much fanfare in the House of Commons back in March, but Morgan who was faced with the indignity of announcing a U-turn on a policy that many suspect she was privately sceptical about in the first place, with the idea said to have originated with the Prime Minister’s office.

What happens to the Government’s overall approach to education reform is also now in question. Primary legislation to enact the policies put forward in the White Paper was expected to be announced in next week’s Queen’s Speech, but it is now unclear what this will look like. With its series of U-turns, and problems elsewhere, the Government looks as if it may be in danger of losing its way on its education agenda.

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