All about Academies

Many schools are currently considering the implications of becoming an academy. We look at what being an academy means, as well as highlighting some of the key issues to consider. We also talk to some of the schools who have gone through the decision-making process themselves.

Academy Decisions

In November this year, education secretary Michael Gove extended access to academy status by announcing that all schools that are ranked good with outstanding features by Ofsted will automatically be eligible for academy status. All other schools – primary or secondary – that wish to become academies are also eligible, providing they work in partnership with a high-performing school. Previously only schools rated ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted were automatically eligible for academy status.

Becoming an academy means that schools become publicly funded independent schools, free from local authority control and national government control. Other freedoms include setting their own pay and conditions for staff, freedoms concerning the delivery of the curriculum, and the ability to change the length of their terms and school days.

The latest DfE figures show that since the Academies Act was passed in July this year, 94 schools have converted to academy status and 198 Academy orders have been issued, which means these schools are expected to concert over the coming months. Over 2,000 schools have registered an interest in becoming an academy.

Gove has said that, in time, he would like academies to become “the norm”, but many schools are still at the stage where they’re making sense of the information and deciding what is right for them. There are a number of issues to consider.

Funding

Funding is clearly one of the major issues a school will be considering. The DfE states that the principle of academies funding is that academies should receive the same level of per-pupil funding as they would receive from the local authority (LA) as a maintained school. They receive this money directly from central government, rather than via the LA. In addition, they receive top-up funding to meet additional responsibilities that are no longer provided for them by the LA. It states clearly that “becoming an academy should not bring about a financial advantage or disadvantage to a school” but that “academies have greater freedom on how they use their budgets, alongside the other freedoms that they enjoy.”

Mike Griffiths, Principal atNorthamptonSchoolfor Boys, Northamptonshire, which opened as an academy in September 2010, said: “There is no new money in gaining academy status. We will get back a significant sum that is presently removed by the LA but that will largely be used to buy back services. What we will be able to do is determine our own spending priorities, not follow those of County Hall.”

However, many schools have found that they are better off.HighdownSchooland Sixth Form Centre, Reading, converted to academy status in November this year. Tim Royle, headteacher at Highdown, said the school now has £1 million a year extra. He said: “It’s moving money away from administration to the front line to children and the quality of their education and that’s terrific”.

Although money was not the only reason the school converted, it was an incentive. He said: “Over the years, whenever there has been a freedom that schools can take on, we’ve always taken it. So when we could take on the payroll and banking etc., we did that.

“Whenever we’ve had the autonomy to take on more, we always feel more responsible and therefore we tend to do better. Academy status appealed to us because it makes our development more organic. We decide what we want to do, we know what we’re good at and we can further develop those things.”

Jonathan Bishop, Principal at Broadclyst Primary,Devon, which opened as an Academy in September, agreed that freedom brought by the funding arrangement was key. He said: To seize the opportunity to get the freedoms that come with academy status, to be able to continue to strive to deliver an outstanding environment… Well, I don’t understand why anyone would not want to do it. We are already reviewing all the services which used to be provided by the local authority – the payroll has already been moved to a new provider.

“We are looking to achieve through the review of services the best value for money for the academy and to provide the most effective services that will enable us to continue to deliver a rich, personalised and engaging curriculum for all children. We want to invest wisely in children’s education and this involves prioritising our resources where it most benefits children. Having the freedoms to make those decisions is essential to allow us to target the investment where it is most needed. We aim to reduce bureaucracy and streamline provision and so increase the investment in the curriculum.”

Concerns

Despite extra money being an obvious bonus for schools, the Academies Act, which was passed in July 2010 to allow more schools to become academies, has been controversial and some have serious concerns about the scheme.

Elliott Furneaux is a headteacher atHeathfieldCommunitySchool,Taunton. The school is rated as outstanding and therefore eligible to convert automatically. Furneaux, however, is fiercely opposed to his school becoming an academy, despite the fact, he says, it would bring his school “massive advantages” to the tune of an extra £600,000 a year. He feels that becoming an academy would be “morally wrong”.

His main concern is the effect converting would have on other schools in the area. Others have also raised concerns that academies could create a ‘two-tier system’ in many areas. He said: “We think it’s utterly wrong and immoral for us to be further financially benefited at the expense of schools that are going to be much further down the food chain.”

One of the features of academy conversion is that schools are expected to agree, in principle, to supporting other schools to raise attainment.

Tim Royle is positive about this aspect, saying: “We should help each other. We’ve swung from schools being in competition with each other to schools helping each other and that’s great.”

However, Elliott Furneaux has concerns about whether this help will materialise once schools are out of ‘the club’, as he sees it. He said: “I think a lot of heads would work closely with other schools and be genuine in that. But there are too many that, particularly when belts are tightened and the budgets get cut, would understandably in a way put their own schools first.”

Pete Jackson is a campaigner with the Anti-Academies Alliance, a group strongly opposed to academies and composed of unions, parents, pupils, teachers, councillors and MPs. He is concerned about the sustainability of the funding. He said: “While there is extra money being made available at the moment, part of the reason for the conversion to academy has to be seen in the context of enormous budget cuts and any sensible governing body shouldn’t just look at how much money it is being promised this year. It should ask what running its own organisation without the support of local authority will actually cost. Secondly it should ask what will happen in year two, three and four. Will the extra money keep coming and will the people they’ve bought extra services in increase the costs?

“These are the questions that most of the time schools haven’t had to take incredibly seriously. It’s not their job to, but effectively they are being told now that they have to run a business. It’s almost inevitable that businesses will offer all sorts of cut-price deals in order to get them on a contract but the price is likely to go up in the future.”

Stoke Newington School in Hackney recently began a consultation on becoming an academy but then withdrew the proposal as the governors felt that there was a lack of clarity on funding information. Henry Stewart, chair of the board of governors at Stoke Newington, says that initially the school had been led to believe it would receive an extra £600,000 per year but then received mixed messages from the DfE. He said: “The government’s views seemed to change every week. In our case the only benefit we saw was in terms of getting greater resources. When it became unclear whether this money existed, and if it did exist whether it would continue, governors were far less sure.”

He said the school will continue to monitor the situation but would not go ahead unless the funding situation was clearer. He added that there would be a full consultation should the school decide to consider academy status again.

Consultation

Another key area of concern for many regarding the conversion to academy status has been the consultation process, or in some cases, the lack of it.

The DfE says that all schools are required to carry out a consultation but it is up to them to decide how to consult and who with. There is no specified length of time for the consultation and schools have flexibility in how it is conducted.

Many schools do decide to consult more widely than the bare minimum anyway. Tim Royle felt consultation was only fair. He said: “We didn’t have to consult but we knew straight that wasn’t the way they wanted to work. We wrote to all parents, consulted and met with the LA, and discussed it with staff and support staff, as well as student leadership teams.”

He added: “There was very little response to the consultation from parents. Out of 1,500 families, we had less than 10 people write a formal letter and half of those were very supportive, some were neutral and we only had one that had a very powerful feeling against.

“What we have said to people throughout the process is we must avoid being political and emotional and we should make a decision based on the context for our school and what is in the school’s best interest.”

Pete Jackson of the Anti-Academies Alliance says theAlliancehas received messages from parents and teachers who have been concerned about their school becoming an academy without any consultation with them. He said: “It’s a travesty of democracy that schools can be handed over to some form of private organisation. It’s only reasonable for schools to hold a consultation where people can read and hear both sides of the argument and put their opinion in print.”

He urges schools to hold a meeting at an accessible time for parents, which is attended by both the proposers and coherent opponents who can put for and against arguments. He said: “There should be a fairly extensive consultation period where people have chance to read literature and really there should be a ballot. At the bare minimum parents and staff should be consulted. More sensibly, a vote should be put to parents of feeder schools. In a sane world schools would consult the wider community because the wider community should own the school.”

Changes

Schools that are potentially interested in becoming an Academy and finding out more about what it would mean for their school can register their interest online with the Department for Education. A wide range of information and FAQs are available on the site too.

Tim Royle says the conversion process was well organised and straightforward and that there are few outward signs of change at the school so far. He explained: “We’re a school that has improved a lot over several years and we don’t want to change that much because what we’re doing now works. We have controversially not changed the name of the school. We’ve got a good brand going that people know, understand and support and we don’t want to lose that. We may make some adjustments to the curriculum but we would have done that anyway. The only visible change there’s going to be is better resources and accommodation because we will use the extra funding we’ve got to benefit the kids on the frontline.”

He added: “It’s interesting that although we haven’t changed, I as head do feel more responsible but instead of looking up to something we’re now looking out at partners.”

Since the school converted Royle says numerous schools have been in touch wanting to discuss academy status and that many of those schools have now decided to go ahead and convert themselves.

He said: “I think it’s an unstoppable force, especially now that a satisfactory school can become an academy.”

Box out

The conversion process

If your school in considering converting to become an academy, here is an overview of the conversion process for outstanding schools (some of these steps can be done simultaneously):

The first step is to register your interest online with the Department for Education. You’ll then be given a named DfE contact. The governing body then begins the consultation process.

The next stage is Application to Convert and the Pre-Application Checks. Once the governing body has passed a resolution in favour of conversion, the Secretary of State will be asked to approve the proposal and a TUPE consultation will begin.

Next is the Funding Agreement Stage. During this stage, legal documents are completed relating to governance, land transfer and company registration need to be finalised. The Governing Body must complete the consultation before they and the Secretary of State sign the funding agreement. The funding agreement will stipulate the date when the academy will open and the local authority will cease to maintain the school from that date. The current employer of the school staff will continue (and ideally complete) a consultation on the transfer of staff under TUPE.

The pre-opening stage is the final stage. The governing body will need to finalise matters in preparation for the academy opening. This will include setting up new contractual arrangements as required and completing registrations.

Other schools can find out more about the process for them by registering their interest with the DfE

The Government says it expects the process to take three or four months.

There is lots of information and FAQs on all aspects of becoming an academy on the DfE website http://www.education.gov.uk/schools/leadership/typesofschools/academies

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