Liz Brownsell on academies: Jump or wait to be pushed

Liz Brownsell, senior associate at Birketts, shares her views on academies; whether to jump right in – or wait to be pushed

In March 2016 the government announced its intention to force all schools to convert to academy status by 2022 – but these plans were promptly dropped following significant criticism. Instead, the DfE is to be granted new powers to force conversions in ‘underperforming’ local authority areas and the government remains determined to see all schools become academies. Liz Brownsell, senior associate at Birketts, shares her views on whether to jump right in – or wait to be pushed

There are two types of academy conversion – the ‘single-academy trust’, where a school converts alone, and the ‘multi-academy trust’ (or MAT) where an academy trust company runs two or more academies. The Secretary of State for Education has said, “We expect most schools will form or join MATs, so proven educational models can spread and grow.” Single academy conversions are, therefore, likely to be more unusual than they were six years ago.

There are, broadly, two key benefits: financial benefits and freedoms

A matter of time

It’s likely that the programme will eventually reach a tipping point and forced conversions will be back on the horizon again sooner or later. Given the government preference for schools to join an existing MAT many schools might prefer to choose who to partner with now, rather than waiting to be forced.

For schools that are performing well, but are within a poorly-performing local authority area, there might be an even greater sense of urgency. By choosing to convert now a school will have the time to engage in discussions with other schools and existing MATs to find the right ‘fit’ for them. For successful schools there is also still the option of applying to convert alone – which brings the freedoms that come with academy status without being subject to the control of a large MAT.

Schools now need to take care to consider the best option for conversion in order to ensure that these freedoms are obtained

To convert or not to convert

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For many schools there are concerns about the loss of democracy and accountability to the local community which flows from becoming an academy. As a maintained school, strategy and direction is often determined in conjunction with the local authority, parents and local community. There is no evidence that academy status improves educational standards, so many good and outstanding schools in well-performing local authority areas ask the question, “Why should we convert – what are the benefits to our school?”

There is no evidence that academy status improves educational standards

There are, broadly, two key benefits: financial benefits and freedoms. The financial benefits are no longer as good as they once were; academies no longer receive the LACSEG (replaced in 2013 with the per pupil ESG, which has been reduced year-on-year). However, academy trust companies have control over their own finances and might achieve cost savings by careful selection of service providers – so, the main advantage of academy status now seems to be the freedoms that academies enjoy.

Schools now need to take care to consider the best option for conversion in order to ensure that these freedoms are obtained. If forced conversion is put back on the table in the future we might see the loss of the current flexibility for schools to choose whether to convert alone, set up a new MAT with other schools or join an existing MAT. So, you decide – is it better in your case to jump now rather than to wait to be pushed later?

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