Plans to make schools become academies have been dropped in a reversal of the policy that was at the centre of this year’s budget.
The government’s decision to scrap the Education For All Bill was described by critics as a “masterclass in how to bury bad news”.
The U-turn was admitted by Justine Greening, the education secretary, in a brief paragraph in a written ministerial statement on further education and technical skills, and can be seen as another nail in the coffin for education policies that found traction under David Cameron and Michael Gove.
George Osborne announced in his budget in March that all state schools would be forced to become academies by 2022. Details were released soon after in an education white paper, leading to threats of strikes by teachers and opposition from Tory MPs and councillors, particularly those in rural areas concerned about the impact on small village schools which would have to join large multi-academy trusts.
The government watered down its proposals in May, insisting that it still wanted all schools to become academies but saying that it would not force every school to do so. However, it planned to retain powers to compel schools to become academies in local council areas where most schools were already academies or were failing.
Ms Greening said: “Our ambition remains that all schools should benefit from the freedom and autonomy that academy status brings. Our focus, however, is on building capacity in the system and encouraging schools to convert voluntarily.
“No changes to legislation are required for these purposes and therefore we do not require wider education legislation to make progress on our ambitious education agenda.”
Critics seized upon the statement. Labour suggested it meant that proposals to introduce grammar schools were also in jeopardy, a claim strongly denied by the government. Angela Rayner, the shadow education secretary, said: “When it comes to this government’s education policy chaos really does mean chaos.”
Head teachers welcomed the news, saying that it was inappropriate to use “fear and threat” to force good schools to convert to academies.
Russell Hobby, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said that the evidence used to justify forcing schools to become academies was dubious. “Tinkering with structures is a distraction from the real needs of schools — developing great teaching and great leadership,” he said.
Richard Watts, from the Local Government Association, said: “Councils have been clear that the proposals within the Bill focused too heavily on structures, when our shared ambition is on improving education for all children.”