Only schools can decide if they should become an academy, or…

Post general election will education face a drastic shake-up or will academisation remain the only show in town? Now the dust has settled Louis Coiffait, head of education at Reform, looks at the pros and cons of committing to becoming an academy and why taking account of your school’s individual circumstances should remain a deciding factor when determining whether or not to convert

Louis CoiffaitI write this article soon after watching the announcement of a Conservative minority government. Controversial education policies now look less likely. Fortunately, this includes the distracting expansion of selective schools but, unfortunately, it also includes the long-overdue national funding formula (NFF) which the Tory manifesto helpfully promised would not be the cause of any cuts to school budgets. So where does all this leave the 24,288 schools in England? The answer is largely where they were before the snap election was called.

Painful but manageable cuts?

Manifesto promises mean that, overall, schools now face a slightly rosier funding cut per pupil of three per cent in real-terms which may be painful, but should be manageable, given that public sector net debt is now 88% of GDP. There is growing evidence across sectors that innovation, reform and improvement is most likely under such pressures rather than in a context of either blunt cuts or huge cash injections. Workforce challenges will continue, something Reform is currently researching. Researching to curriculum and assessment will continue to be implemented and accountability will remain a sore topic, though Ofsted is currently evaluating its strategy. Admissions and place-planning may (finally) be looked at properly. The free school and academies programmes will also carry on regardless, although the latter continues to slow down and is now only a ‘goal’ rather than mandatory. At present 22% of primary schools are academies and 4% of those are in multi-academy trusts (MATs) whereas 62% of secondaries are academies with 36% of those in a MAT.

A fragmented system now sees thousands of schools standing alone as single academy trusts (SATs) and thousands more still as maintained schools with links to the local authority (LA). In this context, what should school governors and leaders think about when considering academisation or other options? Here are three suggestions.

First and foremost, they should do what they believe to be best for all the children at their school. Although the circumstances of each school, and the needs of its pupils, are unique this must involve finding a way to work closely with other schools – whether that’s as part of a MAT, a federation, a Teaching School Alliance or another form of collaboration is for the school to decide. The benefits of collaboration increasingly outweigh any costs. Stand-alone schools of any type are more vulnerable and less efficient.

A story of mixed results

Despite the best efforts of various groups over the years, academies have not been shown to have a significant impact overall on pupil outcomes either way, though some schools certainly have success stories to tell. For those uncertain about the permanent plunge to academisation federations can be a less daunting option, with over a thousand schools currently working together in this way. Schools should take the lead in these decisions as most parents are uninterested in school types, with few understanding what an academy is, let alone what a converter, sponsored, maintained, free, SAT, MAT, foundation or federation is. What they do care about is having a school nearby suited to their child that is locally accountable.

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Secondly, schools should weigh up the implications of all options based on their local situation. The government’s removal of the education services grant (ESG) means that the ‘carrots’ to encourage voluntary academisation, previously £25,000 towards ‘conversion costs’ (usually for legal fees) and budget top-ups of up to 10%, are largely gone. This still leaves the ‘stick’ of forced academisation based on poor school performance.

The reduction of the ESG also has an impact on maintained schools, with local authorities losing £600m over the next two years, leaving little cash for school improvement. Some local authorities are using this challenge to reform and refocus the support they offer; others are largely walking away from such services. The eight regional schools’ commissioners (and their headteacher boards) are now one of the few sources of ‘free’ school improvement money in the system and recently gained responsibility for improving all schools on their patch, not just academies.

However, questions remain about their capacity, independence and accountability. Both MATs and LAs are variable in the quality of what support they provide to their schools. Politics and relationships inevitably play a part too, whether personal, local or national. Schools should look at the pros and cons of all options before making the best choice for their pupils in their circumstances.

A third way

Thirdly, schools should evaluate what the greater freedoms that academies possess might actually mean for them. The academy programme, including free schools, still has the potential to achieve genuine, school-led innovation tailored to local needs. However, many existing school freedoms are rarely used by either academies or maintained schools. Academies don’t have to teach the national curriculum, yet are still held accountable on the same narrow set of measures as other schools. They can handle their own admissions and employ staff directly but thousands of (typically religious) foundation schools can already do this too. They can vary the school day and term times, though this is a complex area and very few have done so.

One controversial area where academies, especially free schools, do seem to use their freedoms is in employing unqualified teachers, perhaps in response to high vacancy rates in some places and subjects. The jury’s still out on what that means for pupils. Again, schools need to work out if any or all of these freedoms would help them achieve more for their pupils. They can take an iterative and evidence-based approach to answering that question for themselves.

So in summary, if schools work in partnership with each other, evaluate all the options and weigh up the evidence carefully – then for some of them academisation may well be the right answer.

There are other partnership options available too but remaining isolated should not be one of them. If nothing else, one silver lining of a minority government is that it could be an opportunity for political parties to focus on working together in addressing the priority issues that really matter. In that situation what could be more important than unlocking the untapped potential within our currently divided school system?

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