A fascinating insight into the tensions inherent in the coalition government is playing itself out in Bath. Oldfield School, a successful girls' foundation school, had declared its plans to apply for outstanding academy status even before the ink was dry on the coalition agreement. Its head Kim Sparling had tried to become the poster girl for Michael Gove's new academies.
But there was a rather big snag in her ambitions: Conservative-run Bath and North East Somerset Council had plans to turn Oldfield into a co-educational school, closing a less successful boys' school in the process. The Tory council, with the support of Liberal Democrat Bath MP Don Foster, made vigorous representations to Gove. The result was that Oldfield did not appear on the list of 32 new academies announced earlier this month, to the fury of Sparling, who has been firing legal letters into the DFE. The school itself has even been advertising as an academy in the local press, even though it is not (yet) one. And now the council has told Oldfield that if it doesn't agree to go co-ed by 5pm today, it will close the school and reopen a coed school on the same site.
This all seems a mite curious. After all, the whole point of Gove's Academies Bill was that outstanding schools would be automatically designated as academies, wasn't it? In fact, what has happened in Bath suggests that far from sidelining local authorities, the coalition has become even more sensitive to their objections. And a host of amendments forced onto the Academies Bill by the Liberal Democrats in July greatly strengthened the power of local authorities to slow down planned academies. The Local Government Association is said to have unprecedented access to ministers, and a coalition of local interests can clearly outweigh a determined head teacher.
In truth, there is also a degree of pragmatic good sense in all of this: at a time of cuts, a degree of strategic planning is necessary to avoid deadweight costs. There is a logic to the council's plans for the authority as a whole, though the whole affair has stopped their wider plans for reorganisation too. And it remains likely that many more good schools will opt for academy status without much objection - but at their own pace.
But what are the cheerleaders for a radical overhaul of the school system to make of it all? This one can't really be blamed on the teaching unions, can it?
UPDATE: Bath's council has won the battle of wills: Oldfield School will admit boys with extra capital funding to provide suitable extra facilities. In return, the council has removed its objection to the school becoming an academy. All of which shows who really has the upper hand in the practical application of the coalition's freedom for outstanding schools.