Government abandons plan to force all schools to be academies - but unclear if compulsory conversion could still apply in Norfolk, Suffolk or Cambridgeshire

Education secretary Nicky Morgan. Photo: Nick Ansell/PA Wire

Education secretary Nicky Morgan. Photo: Nick Ansell/PA Wire - Credit: PA

The government has abandoned plans to force all schools in England to become academies - but it was not clear whether new rules could still require all schools in our region to convert.

The Department for Education said it still wanted all schools to become academies, but would remove the element of compulsion for high-performing schools in areas with strong local authorities.

This afternoon's announcement also introduced safeguards to strengthen the future of small rural schools that become academies, requiring both local and national government to approve any closures.

The government plans to introduce new powers so that all schools will be forced to become academies in areas 'where the local authority consistently fails to meet a minimum performance threshold across its schools, demonstrating an inability to bring about meaningful school improvement'.

All non-academies will also have to convert if 'it is clear that the local authority can no longer viably support its remaining schools because a critical mass of schools in that area has converted'.

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The government has not said which local authorities these measures will apply to.

In 2014, Ofsted said Norfolk County Council's 'arrangements for supporting school improvement are effective', and increasing numbers of schools in Norfolk have also been rated 'good' or 'outstanding' by the inspectors.

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Recent exam results have been more mixed.

Over the past three years, Norfolk has narrowed the gap with the national GCSE pass rate.

However, the government summoned the council's senior education officers to Whitehall last year after the results of end-of-primary-school tests saw Norfolk among the 10 worst performers in England, with Suffolk just one percentage point higher.

A spokesman for Norfolk County Council said: 'We are confident that Norfolk's education system continues to improve strongly on the basis of strong leadership and governance by head teachers and governing boards.'

Suffolk County Council welcomed the u-turn, and said it did not think forced academisation would apply to it, although it was waiting for the government to clarify performance thresholds.

Education secretary Nicky Morgan said: 'I am today reaffirming our determination to see all schools to 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.'

The policy of wholesale forced academisation was a centre-piece of chancellor George Osborne's budget in March, but quickly ran in opposition from some Conservative backbenchers and Tory-run councils, as well as teaching unions and other political parties.

Although most secondary schools in our region are already academies, the vast majority of primary schools are not.

According to the latest government data, there are 275 non-academy primary schools in Norfolk, 204 in Suffolk, and 164 in Cambridgeshire.

The concerns of many MPs centred on the future of small rural primary schools, with fears some would be forced to close if no organisation could be found to sponsor them.

The concessions on small rural schools include changes to the school funding formula to ensure all small schools receive top up funding - although such schools in Norfolk already receive this so-called 'sparsity' funding.

The government also said no small successful schools will be forced to join a national academy chain, and 'most small schools will choose to join multi-academy trusts made up of other local schools, though small sustainable schools will be able to convert alone if they wish'.

Most schools that have so far chosen not to become academies are rated 'good' or 'outstanding' by Ofsted, and critics questioned the need for them to change their status.

The u-turn comes as members of Norfolk County Council prepare to debate a motion on Monday that could see it join the list of authorities formally opposed to every school having to become an academy by 2022.

And last week, anti-academy campaigners in Norwich agreed to set up a formal organisation to oppose the policy.

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