Peter Downes

Liberal Democrat Action Team for Brampton and Kimbolton division Learn more

Schools becoming academies? Handle with care!

by peterdownes on 7 March, 2011

Schools becoming academies?  Handle with care !

 

Some governing bodies may well be considering whether to convert from being a Local Authority (LA) school to becoming an independent state-funded school, i.e. an academy.

The purpose of this article is very simple: it is to urge you to think very carefully before taking this step.

The ‘academy’ terminology is confusing for a start. The original academies were set up under the Labour government to address the issue of poor performance, mainly in deprived areas. By dint of considerable investment, sometimes from the private sector and sometimes from central government, new schools have developed and have had some success in that they have done better than the schools they replaced. There is considerable debate about exactly how this improvement has been achieved but that is another story.

The new academies are quite different; they are the brainchild of Michael Gove. Prior to the election in May 2010, he promised the heads of ‘outstanding schools’ that he would fast track them out of LA control. Within 11 weeks of coming to power, albeit in a coalition government, Gove had rushed through the legislation at a pace normally reserved for anti-terrorist legislation.

There are two areas of inducement for schools to convert to academy status.

Bait no 1 is ‘freedom’:

  1. freedom from following the national curriculum
  2. freedom from nationally agreed pay scales
  3. freedom from LA ‘control’
  4. freedom to set the length of school terms and days

 

Looking at each in turn:

  1. The White Paper (The Importance of Teaching) clearly indicates that all schools will soon have greater freedom to decide their own curriculum so there’s no need to be an academy for that.
  2. for staff and governors, there are potential dangers in being outside the national pay scales. Although the would-be Academies say that they are not making any immediate changes, ‘any future changes would require the agreement of the majority of affected staff’. This appears to mean that the Governors would be negotiating direct with the staff of a particular school without reference to the unions the staff belong to. There is massive potential for divisiveness and rivalry within a staffroom.
  3. in practice the LA does not ‘control’ schools and has not done so for over 20 years. It does provide a range of services and especially a back-up crisis management capability. Academies have to go it alone and find the money to provide, for example,  SEN Support Services; Behaviour Support; determining free school meals eligibility; licences and subscriptions (which are negotiated collectively for schools by the LA); supply cover for maternity; education welfare service; Asset Management, premature retirement costs; redundancies; legal services. None of these is impossible for an autonomous school to achieve but they are likely to be more expensive when negotiated in isolation, will increase the administrative burden of the school and the responsibilities of the Governors.
  4. Changing the school day and the length of terms could cause confusion for family life if families and teachers have children in different schools with differing arrangements. If your school has some pupils bussed in, the extra cost of changing bus timetables would have to be met by your school.

 

In summary, the alleged ‘freedoms’ are illusory or potentially dangerous.

In practice, no state-funded school can be fully autonomous. Academies will be answerable directly to the Secretary of State who will have the power to close them down, without consultation, if he thinks they are performing badly. An academy that changes its mind will have to give seven years notice of its wish to revert to LA maintained status.

Parents who have a complaint about an academy will obviously make the complaint to the governors in the first instance but if a satisfactory resolution of the issue is not achieved, they will have to go to the Young People’s Learning Agency, (soon to be renamed the Education Funding Agency), and seek action from a remote official. Compare that with the flexibility and proximity of current arrangements where governors can call in help from LA officers who already know the school’s situation from first-hand experience.

Bait no. 2 is money:

Academies will receive the funding they would normally get from the Dedicated School Grant (DSG) via the Schools Forum of LA, plus an extra grant intended to cover the cost of services previously provided from the collective services of the LA.  This extra grant, together with other specific sweeteners (£25,000 start-up grant, special grant for extra insurance cover, grant to cover VAT) means that converter academies will be able to cover all their extra costs and still make a significant profit. A 1,400 pupil village college in Cambridgeshire reckons it will be better off by a net £300,000 per year.

What is surprising about this is the claim from the DfE that ‘the government is clear that a school converting to an academy will not have a financial advantage or disadvantage’.

 

So where is this extra money coming from? Two sources: part will be recouped from that element of the DSG that, with the collective agreement of the Schools Forum, is held back by the LA to provide highly specialised help for individual pupils with health or behavioural problems. The rest, having previously come from some mysterious pocket within central government, will, from April 2011, be clawed back from the general grant given to Local Authorities for all their work, including adult social care, road maintenance. The clawback will not be specific to each LA but will be applied simplistically across the entire country, irrespective of the number of academies in any given LA.

What this means in practice is that, in order to allow a few schools, already the most privileged and achieving ‘outstanding’ status, to get even better, the most vulnerable will see the budgets set aside for them cut back even further than they would have been anyway in this time of austerity.

Governance will be different in academies. There will be an ‘academy trust’ of three people who will appoint the governing body which, it is expected, will be smaller than in the current arrangements. As indicated above, there will be increased responsibilities for governors, of which the negotiations with staff are likely to be the most challenging. Governors already give a great deal of time and enthusiasm to supporting their school but becoming an academy is a step-change in the range and depth of commitment expected.

Leaving aside all the technical detailed issues alluded to above, the fundamental question we must all ask ourselves is: do we want education in this country to be fragmented into autonomous units, each competing in the market-place for customers (pupils), competing for best-value procurement of the services previously provided by the LA? Or do we want to see educational provision coordinated and supported by democratically elected authorities who have the overall responsibility of ensuring appropriate cost-effective provision and support for all pupils, regardless of ability, health, material circumstances and family background?

In my bleaker moments I foresee the 2010 Act as the beginning of a quasi-Darwinian process where the survival of the fittest will be at the expense of the weakest and most vulnerable. That is why we need to think very carefully before opting for academy status and thereby being sucked in to this destructive process.

 

  1. 1.    Issues to raise with Governors

 

a. As an academy, you will take on a whole range of risks and responsibilities that are currently managed for you by the LA. These include financial, technical, personnel and legal issues as well as responsibility for all the buildings and assets.

Has the headteacher made you fully aware of all these in detail?

Are you confident that you, as Governors, have the expertise and time to manage these new responsibilities adequately?

 

b.  As an Academy, your school will be completely independent of the Local Authority (LA). You will be funded, monitored and regulated by the Young People’s Learning Agency (YPLA), a government created quango run from London.

Will the remoteness of this supervision and control be an advantage or a disadvantage?

 

c. Your schools’ future is directly in the hands of the Secretary of State. He could, for example, close you down without consultation if things started to go seriously wrong.   

Remembering that, over the years, there will be different Secretaries of State with different attitudes to education, are you happy to accept that the school’s future will depend on an individual?

 

 

d. The Act as passed on July 27th, 2010, requires you to undertake ‘appropriate consultation’.

If you have already consulted, are you satisfied that you have fulfilled your responsibilities to the parents (current and future), teachers and local community, making them fully aware not only of the potential advantages of becoming an academy  but also       of the potential pitfalls?

e. You will have been made aware that the school receives extra money on becoming an academy. Have you fully understood the sources of this extra money? Have your Head and Finance Manager calculated the net extra funding available after covering your extra costs? Has the Head explained what impact your net extra funding will have on pupils in other schools?

 

            Are you comfortable with taking a decision that may benefit your school even though it means putting others at risk?

 

  1. f.        Given that you will not be able to call on the LA to rescue you in the event of emergencies, there is a need for substantial contingency funding in reserves.

Have your Head and Finance Manager carried out a full risk assessment in the context of likely scenarios and made a plan for how to set aside enough contingency to deal with a crisis? Is this a specific part of the Business Plan?

 

 

  1. 2.    Issues to raise with the headteacher

 

  1. a.      The government has offered ‘outstanding’ schools, and ‘good with outstanding features’ schools the chance to convert to becoming an academy. This has been presented as an exciting innovation.

 

In recommending academy status, on what criteria would you be able to demonstrate clearly to governors and stakeholder groups that academy status would bring about improvements in the educational experience of the pupils and what would these be?

 

b.   By taking your school out of the LA, you will be removing funding that is currently spent by the LA on behalf of pupils in all schools and particularly those who need special help for a variety of reasons.

Would you think it reasonable before recommending academy status to make an impact assessment of how your conversion to academy status may affect children in neighbouring schools and the rest of the Local Authority?

Have you evaluated how your actions might affect your professional relationships and shared ways of working with colleagues in other schools?

 

 

 

Contact details for Peter Downes:

 

01480 398082

 

peter.downes@cambridgeshire.gov.uk

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