A school’s decision on whether or not to go for academy status is often contentious.
Even now after some 12 years, with more than 2,300 academies open representing more than half of all secondary schools in England, the arguments still rumble on about whether they improve standards overall, their effect on other schools, and whether they increase social division in education.
This short series of articles, to run throughout January in SecEd, documents the benefits and challenges of academy status as seen and experienced by different academies and maintained schools. It includes some that passionately believe in the independence and financial benefits that academy status gives – and one that believes equally passionately that becoming an academy is not for them.
So what are the benefits and the disadvantages, as seen by school leaders from their practical experience?
Originally the financial benefits of academy status, and the associated benefits to the schools and their students, were incontrovertible. The more recent converter academies may not have received largesse on the scale of the originals, but the increase in resources is still notable.
Extra revenue from LACSEG (Local Authority Central Spend Equivalent Grant) enables academies to invest more in their own priorities.
Morley High School in Leeds gained £280,000 a year additional income for its 1,600 students when it became an academy in early 2011. It uses some of this money to buy services outside its local authority, although it still buys some services from Leeds local authority.
The experience of turning a school into an academy may seem a stand-alone event and a significant step for any school, and for many it is. But a number do not see it that way, agreeing with Stephen Munday, principal of the academy Comberton Village College in Cambridge, that “it’s a small step in the same direction”.
As one of the first grant-maintained schools, Comberton has long valued its independence. At the same time some local authority schools, such as Hadley Learning Community in Telford, believe they have as much independence and freedom of choice as they need in relations with their local authorities.
Hadley’s principal and governing body insist they have no intention of seeking academy status. While freedom from local authority control is an important factor to many academies, they are still subject to other restrictions.
A common concern among school and academy leaders is central government’s restrictions on elements that they consider should be decided at school level, such as the curriculum.
A key point in the National Audit Office’s recent report into the academies programme was that 47 per cent of academies responding to their survey felt less free from bureaucracy than they had expected to be.
Relationship with the local authority
Academies generally find that their relationship with the local authority is no more difficult than it was before. This could be just because they ignore each other, but not so, apparently. Some claim actually to have better relationships with their local authority now: “It’s a more grown-up, mature relationship between two types of system leader,” as one academy principal put it.
Changing contracts and admission rules
Two of the issues that have most concerned those opposed to the whole principle of academies were the potential for schools to change their admissions policies and their staff terms and conditions. The fear was that schools would manipulate these arrangements to reduce costs and “improve” their intakes.
At Comberton, the principal and governing body were adamant that no changes would be made in these respects, which they believed were key ingredients in the school’s stability and positive contribution to its community.
Morley did change both these elements, but not in the ways feared by the education unions, among others. Within staff terms and conditions, they now provide bonuses in addition to the existing salaries; and on admissions, the changes they have made ensure that children from more distant feeder primaries are still be able to join this increasingly popular academy.
Some choose not to take academy route
Academies maintain they are able to gain the benefits of their new status and still hold on to the traditional loyalties – yet other schools have resisted academy status for just this reason.
Hadley Learning Community, a new three to 16 school opened just six years ago, replaced two failing schools in the area. The local authority, Telford and Wrekin, initiated Hadley’s creation by persuading the government to support a £73 million PFI bid for the building of the new school.
Hadley now educates some 1,400 pupils from nursery through to completion of key stage 4. It is perhaps not surprising, then, that Hadley Learning Community principal Gill Eatough admits to feeling “old-fashioned allegiance” to the local authority.
More than that, the authority appears to be quite relaxed about the school using services from commercial organisations or other authorities, if it chooses. Financially, too, in this particular case the school leaders believe they would not be significantly better off as an academy.
Case history: Academy status?
Not yet... There are other reasons than loyalty to existing partners why schools may not be seeking to change status just now. Waverley School in Small Heath, Birmingham, has so far resisted the temptation to become an academy. The governors of this four to 19 mixed school judged outstanding by Ofsted in 2010 decided that the likely financial benefits did not justify the change at that time.
However, there was another, more specific, reason for this decision. The school is in the process of moving to a new building on a nearby site. After that, says headteacher Kamal Hanif, “the governing body will review the school’s position given the changing educational funding landscape”.
Mr Hanif was awarded an OBE in June 2012 for services to education, having enabled Waverley to feature among the 100 most improved schools for two years running, and seeing one of its students being accepted to Cambridge for the first time. The school will also be looking at opportunities to gain greater flexibility in responding to the government’s revised examination structures at key stages 4 and 5.
What about freedom from the local authority? This is not something Mr Hanif is seeking: “We have very good partnerships with the authority and with other local schools, which we intend to continue. The local authority (Birmingham) is very supportive. I’ve always been upfront, giving my reasons.
“As the main supporter for a new studio school – Waverley Studio College, which will specialise in health and social care, enterprise, and green energy – we will have to consider academy status. We have already created an academy trust to support the studio school development.”
Why did they not do it before? Because “academy status secures the land boundary for the trust and an expression to the Department for Education now would place a red line around our current site – which would mean that we would be unable to move to our new school site”.
Mr Hanif continued: “We don’t want to remain on our existing site as the building is not fit for 21st century learning. It will revert to the local authority when we move into the new premises.”