When Comberton Village College in Cambridgeshire consulted with its community in late 2010 about becoming an academy, some staff members expressed concerns and there were particular issues expressed by the local unions.
Principal Stephen Munday recalls: ‘They wanted to know – ‘Comberton is a local school – why are you doing this? Are you going to change the admissions or staff terms and conditions?’
“We said no and here’s why – any staff working here or applying to work here need to be confident that they will be treated fairly. It would be bizarre for us to change the terms and conditions. As our chair of governors said, if we did that we’d get the staff we deserved.
“So we did not change the terms and conditions of service – and we still have our highly inclusive admissions policy.”
Comberton became an academy in February 2011. Now nearly all secondary schools in Cambridgeshire are academies, many people’s questions have been resolved and the arguments have moved on.
Mr Munday continued: “The unions are now, quite reasonably, more concerned with pensions. If I asked around the staff now what they thought about our having become an academy I think they’d shrug their shoulders and wonder why I was asking.”
What does it mean to this school?
Mr Munday sees becoming an academy as “a small step in the same direction” for the school. Academy status just fits in with the school’s continuing philosophy.
“We were an early grant-maintained school; our whole approach has always been one of independence, with the highest possible level of delegation of resources and freedom, which we must have in order to fulfil our responsibilities as a school. So it was hardly a major change for us. We were fundamentally buying in all our own services anyway.”
The school has used the additional LACSEG (Local Authority Central Spend Equivalent Grant) money it receives as an academy to increase support for learning.
Mr Munday added: “We invest more in the groups most in danger of underachieving. Before, we didn’t always know what those funds were used for and as a school we weren’t obviously getting the benefits of that resource. The calculation of LACSEG is something of a mystery.
“A potential difference is the freedom we now have to change the curriculum if we think that is appropriate. We are guided but not dictated to by the national curriculum – actually, schools were never duty bound to follow it before: we have always done what we thought was right.”
The relationship with the local authority has actually improved now the school is an academy, Mr Munday believes.
“Funnily enough we speak to the local authority more now than we did before, and we probably get on better. It’s a more grown-up, mature relationship between two types of system leader.
“The local authority wants to sell services and offer support, and we as a teaching school offer them services too.”
Benefits and challenges
But while the money paid to the school in lieu of local authority services enables them to do more, there’s no change in essence, Mr Munday continued.
“Have we turned our back on other schools in the area? No. Quite the reverse. One thing the governing body insists on, and all of us believe in very strongly, is that Comberton Village College is at the heart of the community.”
The school has deliberately not changed its name to include the word academy: there was no obvious need to do so.
It is very much in this context, he adds, that a bigger issue than the academy itself is the academy trust (the Comberton Academy Trust), through which Comberton has sponsored another secondary academy, The Voyager Academy in Peterborough.
He explained: “Our work with them is very significant. And to cater for the current population growth locally we are setting up a new free school, Cambourne Village College, again overseen by the Comberton Academy Trust.
“Academy trusts are an important part of the development of the academy movement, and have the potential to be game changers in terms of the system structure.
“It’s an excellent organisational device to pull together a number of schools. It will enhance school-to-school work and schools’ improvement. That potential has been the really big change for us. We are working more powerfully now than ever before with other schools.
“The one issue I have is the level of bureaucracy we have to endure, at least on certain fronts, from central government. We’re having to spend more time on certain aspects of governmental organisation – especially financial ones – than on the concepts of the academy.
“This seems to contravene the principle of becoming an academy.” Further informationRead the previous articles in this series. They include: