The academies programme receives its biggest boost today with the news that thousands of faith schools are about to convert to the status.
The Church of England estimates that 70 per cent (3,360) of its 4,800 state schools will become academies within the next five years. That would bring the total number of academies in England to more than 4,300 – around one in five of all state primary, special and secondary schools. At present there are 629 with a further 473 in the pipeline.
The move towards academy status could have a "domino effect" – with other schools quitting local authority control as they realise their councils no longer have the cash to fund vital services such as help for special needs and school improvements.
The exodus of Church of England schools from local authority control comes in the wake of a deal between church leaders and the Government that removed obstacles to their schools becoming academies.
Previously, they had been worried that valuable land would revert from the diocese to individual governing bodies if they opted for a change in status.
The Right Rev John Pritchard, Bishop of Oxford, said the deal would still give them powers over appointing governors and allow them to protect the schools' Christian character. "In the long run there will be a major shift to academies because it is what the Government is determined shall be," he said.
He predicted that smaller primary schools, in particular, would form joint academy trusts to give them increased economies of scale. The CofE will also look to provide some of the services previously provided by the local authority – and offer them to non-faith schools seeking to opt out, too.
"It may be there are schools that are traditionally outside the church family that say you are providing the kind of thing we need and they would want to relate to us in an affiliated way. It's all to play for," said the Bishop.
A small number of Catholic schools are also planning to become academies now the hurdles have been cleared.
However, there is still likely to be opposition to the moves from teachers' unions. Both the National Union of Teachers and National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers agreed at their Easter conferences to campaign against academy status.
Keith Porteous Wood, director of the National Secular Society, said widespread academy status would put too much power in the hands of churches: "A mass conversion of faith schools into entirely self-governing academies freed from the moderating influence of local authorities will be the churches' dream and most parents' nightmare. It is a betrayal of the nation's children to give the churches virtual control of education without having to pay a penny."