While the 83 academy schools that have opened in the UK bear the imprint of Lord Adonis, schools minister and former adviser to Tony Blair, the next 83 may well be reshaped in the image of Ed Balls, the children’s secretary and close confidant of Gordon Brown.
The working relationship between these two veterans of the Blair-Brown power struggles is one of the most closely watched in Whitehall. Education insiders and MPs consider it an indicator not only of the direction in which the academy programme is travelling, but the commitment of the Brown government to pressing ahead with Blairite reforms. Mr Balls has recently committed to accelerating the pace of the programme, with Lord Adonis alongside him retaining a key role in its development.
This has convinced even initially sceptical Blairite cabinet ministers that Mr Brown has accepted the need for an ambitious New Labour reform programme.
But the apparent consensus on the future of the programme masks a more complicated picture. Mr Balls’s commitment to bringing academies back into the local authority fold has raised questions as to whether they will enjoy the freedom originally envisaged by Mr Blair. “It’s entirely ideological,” says one Labour MP who has seen Mr Balls operate at close quarters. “He has a strong belief in the role of local authorities in the delivery of services. He is a big state man.”
Early on, Mr Balls repositioned the programme, winning over previously disaffected unions and Labour MPs by making clear that academies would be given a “greater strategic role”.
“There was a clear suspicion at the end of last year that Ed Balls was moving to completely emasculate the academy project,” said David Laws, Liberal Democrat education spokesman. “But it appears that any attempt to curtail the project has been fought off by Lord Adonis.”
Aides to Mr Balls insist the changes were merely pragmatic steps to better manage the growing number of academies and allow new projects to be set up more quickly. Still, education insiders says there has been inevitable tension between Mr Balls and Lord Adonis, who share a journalistic background – both worked for the Financial Times – but have a different approach to academies.
Lord Adonis, a former Liberal Democrat with what one sponsor described as a “monastic devotion” to academies, is a stronger believer in school freedoms. By contrast, Mr Balls is said by those who work with him to dislike the “untidiness” of managing scores of semi-independent schools.
The differences in outlook between Mr Balls and Lord Adonis – and shared competitive streak – have led to what officials describe as “bureaucratic squabbling” over matters as trivial as who signs relevant documents. But Lord Adonis is less doctrinal and more pragmatic than generally perceived, his former aides say. His determination to open academies led him to accept some compromises, even in the Blair era. “He does whatever it takes to set up these schools,” said one official.