A mixture of teaching union pressure, legal hitches and a lack of interest from schools marred the first day of the Government's blitz to boost the academies programme yesterday.
Only 32 schools will transfer to academy status on the first day of term, despite a claim by Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, to MPs earlier in the summer that 1,100 were waiting to take advantage of the Government's offer. However, a further 110 have been given the go-ahead to transfer from local authority control later on in the school year.
The low initial figure prompted teachers' leaders – who wrote to every school in the country advising them to think twice before switching – to claim that the policy had "simply not caught the imagination of school leaders".
Christine Blower, the general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said: "For a policy that was supposed to be a flagship change for education, it is something of a failure to have so few schools opening at this stage. The Government has been given a clear message: the break-up of the state education system in England is not wanted."
The Government, however, insisted that the 142 schools set to transfer in the next year represented "the first wave of converters in a rolling process that allows schools to convert at any stage".
Mr Gove would have expected opposition from teachers' unions to his proposals, but in the run-up to legislation paving the way for what he termed a "rocket boost" to the academies programme, there was also opposition from the Catholic Church and the National Grammar Schools Association.
The Church was worried about the transfer of land from dioceses to the newly set-up academies, while grammar school heads have been concerned that academy status might make it easier for schools to halt their selection process.
One headteacher opposed to the move, David Hudson of Wickersley school in Rotherham, said: "If we were to become an academy, it would in essence take money and resources from all the other Rotherham schools and schools across the nation and simply give it to us.
"I am head of an outstanding, high-performing school. I'm already doing very nicely, thank you very much, so why give me extra money at the expense of other schools that need it?"
In the end, the emergency legislation – allowing primary schools to become academies for the first time, plus all schools rated as "outstanding" by the education standards watchdog Ofsted – only passed through the Commons within days of the end of the summer term.
Brian Lightman, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: "We don't think it is an unduly low figure. If it had been any higher we would have been concerned. We've advised our members to plan carefully before seeking academy status and they're obviously doing this."
However, Labour's education spokesman Ed Balls claimed yesterday's announcement was "a further embarrassment for Michael Gove". He added: "After claiming over 1,000 schools had applied to become academies and railroading his emergency legislation through Parliament, it now turns out only a tiny fraction of that number are opening for the start of the new term."
Support for the Government's academies programme emerged today in a report from the Confederation of British Industry. But the report also called on ministers to expand its "free" schools programme – under which parents, teachers and charities can be given state aid to run schools – to allow profit-making companies to join the scheme. So far only 62 applications have been made.
"For school reforms to deliver improvements in educational outcomes it is essential that the full range of of expertise and capacity that exists within the private sector and third sector is utilised to improve value for money and drive through innovation and change," the report said.
"Government must open up services to competition and in the case of free schools, allow profit-making companies to be involved in due course."
Mr Balls sought to draw attention yesterday to 64 new academies opening in September as a result of Labour's programme – when the scheme was largely confined to replacing failing or underperforming schools in inner city areas.
How the new system works...
Under the Government's revamped programme, all schools can now seek academy status.
Those ranked as "outstanding" by the standards watchdog Ofsted can automatically transfer to academy status – and for the first time, primary schools can also choose to become one.
As an academy, a school is funded directly by Whitehall so the headteacher and its governing body have control over how to spend the budget – buying in services such as special needs support rather than receiving them from their local authority.
The school is also given freedom from the national curriculum, gaining more control over what it teaches its pupils. Under Labour's old programme, academies were sponsored either by businesses or universities and were concentrated in areas of social deprivation. The status was also conferred on schools considered to be under-performing.