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21.12.15

Academisation: The rhetoric and the reality

Source: PSE Dec/Jan 16

Independent schools adviser Stephen Rayner discusses the practical challenges facing councils and schools surrounding the drive for more conversions to academies.

Writing in the Daily Telegraph in August 2015, the prime minister confirmed his government’s intention that every school in England should “have the opportunity to become an academy and benefit from the freedoms this brings”. Further academisation would contribute to “vital reforms in our public services”, giving head teachers “the freedom to run their own schools with the ability to set their own curriculum and pay their staff properly”. A government priority would be “to recruit more academy sponsors and support more great head teachers in coming together in academy chains”. 

Shortly afterwards, at the Conservative Party Conference in October 2015, David Cameron promised to end schools’ accountability to elected local councils: “Five hundred new free schools, every school an academy, and yes – local authorities running schools a thing of the past.” 

This was confirmed in the chancellor’s Spending Review and Autumn Statement, which protected much education funding but announced that the government would reduce the local authority role in “running schools” and would remove a number of statutory duties. 

The end of local accountability 

The academies programme, introduced by Tony Blair and Lord Adonis, was further shaped and expanded by David Cameron and Michael Gove. This is an area where the policies of successive governments have converged. Academisation has removed hundreds of schools from local authority control and therefore from accountability to local voters. Academies are directly funded by the Department for Education, sometimes with support from corporate or other sponsors. 

The prime minister is clearly confident that his plans can be realised. My current research into the academisation of an English school suggests that the process may not be as straightforward as he makes it sound. 

A case study 

I am studying an English secondary school that has been considering changing its status from a local authority maintained school to an academy. My research draws on interviews with those involved in and affected by the process: governors, school leaders, teaching and support staff, the local authority and the potential sponsor. I have interviewed this group twice, in July 2014 and July 2015. I have also observed meetings at which academisation has been discussed and have collected relevant documents setting out the proposal. 

In several ways, the school in this case study might appear perfect for academisation. The school and its leadership have been judged by Ofsted to be ‘good’, so Cameron’s repeated phrase “great headteachers” is satisfied. It has impressive, architect-designed, new-build accommodation that cost more than £30m. As a voluntary controlled Church of England school it has a potential sponsor – the diocese – that is acceptable to the Department for Education, governors, staff and the school community. The school is in a local authority that has consistently supported academisation, with two-thirds of its secondary schools and a quarter of its primary schools already academies. 

Obstacles and interruptions 

And yet, after more than a year of discussions and proposals, the school has shelved its academisation plan and proposes instead to change from voluntary controlled to voluntary aided status. That change could have been made at any time since those school categories were set out in the 1944 Education Act. 

Schools with voluntary controlled status are still in most respects local authority schools. The local authority is responsible for staff contracts, capital programmes and the pupil admissions policy. Governors appointed by the Church of England are in a minority. Under voluntary aided status, the majority of governors are foundation governors appointed by the Church. The school employs the staff and controls its own admissions policy. Capital works are grant aided, with the grants being administered through the Diocese Board of Education rather than the local authority. 

There appear to be several reasons why academisation has not been straightforward, including difficulties in setting up a multi-academy trust, finance, the position taken by the diocese and the position taken by the local authority. 

Multi-academy trusts 

Academies are often grouped into multi-academy trusts (MATs), sometimes referred to as ‘chains’, where a single trust runs more than one academy. In my case study, the secondary school aimed to establish a MAT with five of its partner primary schools. Those six schools were represented at a briefing meeting in the diocesan offices and a meeting for the staff of all the schools. 

A year later, all five primary schools had decided not to proceed with the formal partnership. Various reasons were given, but they all reflected the view that the advantages of academisation would be outweighed by the disadvantages. The primary schools were generally content with the support they were already receiving from the local authority, in particular from its strong team of school improvement advisers. They were hesitant about committing to a partnership with a secondary school that – in terms of pupil numbers and budget – was as large as the primary schools combined. 

In the most significant case, a Church of England primary school, governors overturned an earlier decision to convert when they were informed that academisation was opposed both by staff and by advice from the local authority. 

Finance and PFI 

The secondary school in the case study has major financial concerns. Its spectacular new build was financed through a private finance initiative (PFI). The PFI agreement includes a series of facilities management contracts lasting up to 25 years and costing more than £1m a year. At a time of budget reductions, this commitment puts the long-term financial security of the school at risk. 

The school’s governors are fully aware of this and are deeply concerned about the future viability of the school. They hoped that academy ‘freedoms’ would give them the opportunity to renegotiate the PFI contract, but this appears to be legally impossible. 

The diocese 

The diocese is reluctant to take on such an open-ended financial burden, which must be a disincentive to any potential sponsor. Its independent auditors concluded that the PFI contract did not meet the school’s needs, did not function effectively and did not provide value for money. For the diocese, voluntary aided status might offer the best of both worlds. It would increase its influence on the governing body and would give it more control over the land and assets of the school, without having to take on the same financial risks that it would if the school were an academy. 

The local council 

Finally, the local authority has changed from a positive to a sceptical view of academies. Its director of education explained to me in an interview that councillors were concerned about the performance of some academies in their area and were no longer persuaded that academisation provided a solution to low standards. The recent GCSE examination results had been slightly better in local authority schools than in academies. 

The director of education added that the DfE had acknowledged in discussions that some schools were proving too difficult to convert. This suggests that while the combination of obstacles may be unique to my case study school, those individual obstacles are not exceptional. Civil servants see obstacles where politicians see none. 

Staff approval 

When I interviewed staff a year ago, they all thought that academisation was inevitable. Most were broadly in favour, seeing no disadvantages for the school, for its students or for themselves professionally. 

A year later, after the change to voluntary aided status had been proposed, the mood was even more positive. For those few who had had reservations about academisation, voluntary aided status was a preferable alternative. For those who had favoured academisation, voluntary aided status meant the school was on the way to becoming an academy by increasing its autonomy. 

So this is not a story of resistance, of teachers or parents campaigning to delay or disrupt academisation, as has been the case in some parts of the country. The delays and disruptions have been caused by factors within education policy. 

Implications for school governors 

The Education and Adoption Bill 2015-16 makes provision to force schools in England that are causing concern to convert into academies. It sets out increased powers for the education secretary, who until now has had the power to impose a forced academy conversion on a local authority school judged by Ofsted inspectors to be failing (technically having ‘serious weaknesses’ or in ‘special measures’). 

If the Bill becomes law, the education secretary will instead have a statutory duty to do so. Governors will not be required to consult on this and may not choose the academy sponsor. Any previous rights held by the local authority may be overridden. 

A governing body that does not “take all reasonable steps to facilitate the conversion of the school into an academy” may be replaced with an interim executive board, whose members will be appointed by the secretary of state. 

The Education and Adoption Bill 2015-16 also introduces the concept of ‘coasting schools’. This term has yet to be defined: the actual wording of the Bill is: “The secretary of state may by regulations define what ‘coasting’ means”. 

However they are defined, these new coasting schools are also eligible for intervention by the education secretary, which may result in an ‘academy order’ being issued. 

Contradictions 

In both government policies and the reality of life in today’s English schools, there are contradictions that call into question the simple rhetoric of “every school an academy”. The Conservative government elected in May 2015 is taking action to remove some of the obstacles to academisation that may be posed by local democracy and community engagement, but its project may be frustrated by contradictions inherent in the policy complex itself. 

About the author 

Stephen Rayner has been a school teacher, deputy head teacher and local authority adviser. He currently works as an independent adviser to schools. He is chair of governors at an academy and is studying for a doctorate in education.

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