Gill Eatough, principal of Hadley Learning Community in Shropshire, and her governing body are clear that academy status is not for them – at least, not for now.
“We have a group of governors and staff who keep looking at it,” she explained.
“And the main question we keep coming back to is: what is the educational value of becoming an academy? We have a new building; we are a popular school with rising standards. There are no problems recruiting staff. The budgets are okay.
“The school is six-years-old, and it has taken me that long to establish its vision and ethos, to market it and establish its position in the community. The school is now in a very, very strong position. Michael Gove (the education secretary) claims that academies are raising standards across schools. Well, we’re in the top 100 most improved schools in the country.
Hadley supports other weaker schools and enjoys its relationships with them, Ms Eatough said.
She continued: “If we became an academy, it might take something away from all that. We work very collegially. Telford and Wrekin Learning Partnership is supporting subject leaders and teachers, and developing and promoting best practice. From that point of view, it’s a very healthy environment.
“I don’t want to do anything that might destabilise what we’ve achieved with parents, staff, the community and the students.”
The all-phase learning community replaced three schools – an infants, a primary and a secondary – all of which had been achieving poor results. Without the Learning Community there would be no provision in this part of Telford for the huge projected growth in number of secondary-age children.
As founding head of the new school, Ms Eatough experienced no constraints in appointing staff. “There was no pressure to use staff of the former schools – I just took the best.”
Independence is important to any school head and Ms Eatough says she has this with her authority (Telford and Wrekin) which she says never tells her to do anything.
“I run my own ship – ultimately responsible to the governing body of course. We have a great governing body and we work well together. Becoming an academy, with the complexities of our site and the PFI contract, would involve a huge amount of work that would not in itself result in improving educational standards for our students.
“Is that what I want to spend my time doing when our aim is for Hadley to become outstanding over the next two to three years?
“I buy in all my own services. For example, we use Shropshire local authority for education welfare services. Telford and Wrekin knows it’s a free market, and they also know that if they provide good services at a keen price we will buy them.”
Other schools in the area seem to share her view on this. There are only a handful of converter academies locally – two grammar schools and one primary, she explained.
Along with independence, finance is often a major issue for schools considering academy status, and Ms Eatough acknowledges its importance.
“I wouldn’t deprive our students of the benefits we could obtain if becoming an academy entailed significant extra funding. But that is not the case. As a school in an area of high deprivation with many students eligible for free school meals, we do well from the Pupil Premium.
“The LACSEG (Local Authority Central Spend Equivalent Grant) might even be less than we are receiving now if we were an academy. Looking ahead, as more schools become academies, there is likely to be progressively less money in the pot.”
This fits with the recent National Audit Office report, which indicated that the Department for Education faced a huge challenge as a result of its £1 billion overspend on the academies programme.
On the other side, there is some scare-mongering among heads that academies are being charged huge amounts for services from private sector companies. The mere name “academy” ratchets the price up, it seems. Ms Eatough puts the financial aspect into perspective: “If finance was the only reason to do it – that is not what I came into education to do.”
“I have an old-fashioned allegiance to the local authority,” Ms Eatough admits. “For them it was a huge, brave step to create this new school and I have a personal investment in it. It’s not trendy but it is important.”
But she recognises that she is fortunate in her relationship with the authority. “I have friends in other areas who are suffering cuts in public sector spending and the local authorities are not helpful or useful. Sometimes they are a shadow of what they were. It doesn’t mean a lot any more.”
So why should Ms Eatough and the governing body seek to turn Hadley Learning Community into an academy? “It’s not broke.” CAPTION: Not for us: Hadley Learning Community in Shropshire is happy with its progress and local authority links and believes academy status would be a distraction