Academies: My take!

We’ve seen them crop up all over the country, and Gove and Cameron are trying to persuade more and more schools to become one, yet they seem to have evaded my attentions, until I was asked by a friend to talk about them. So today’s post is going to be on academies.

Mr Gove has set out his vision that the vast majority of primary and secondary schools to become academies. I find this rather bizarre when you consider that the very same Mr Gove is intent on changing the national curriculum.

There are currently two ways to become an academy: conversion academies (schools deemed to be performing well can apply to convert to be an academy. Their governing body may remain in place, but it will have greater freedoms and responsibilities in running the school), and sponsored academies (where a ‘sponsor’ is brought in to run the school on behalf of the DfE. This can of course be a parent)

An academy works in slightly different ways to a mainstream school, of which I’m going to give both sides of each point.

One key difference is that an academy is out of the control of the Local Authority (LA). This means that there is potentially more room for flexibility of the schools budget, allowing the school to put more money onto where it feels that more money is needed. There is of course a serious downside. Without being under the control of the LA, they potentially lose all the expertise in HR, budgeting and other important services for them. It also means that schools lose economies of scale, causing a serious rise in costs. This can of course be averted by working with local schools and the LA should they wish to keep costs down. Of course should this not happen, it may mean that there is a conscious shift in the attentions of the management team to focus on raising funds rather than provide the quality education that their children deserve.

An academy also owns the premises it works on. This of course can produce an option for raising funds, ie renting premises out. But it also means that the school in itself is liable for any maintenance issues that arise from problems, ie a broken window where a child has thrown their shoe through it during a maths lesson (I have actually seen this happen before). Of course several of these means the budget can be squeezed to the point of ending up in a deficit. If the school is outside of Local Authority control, there is absolutely no protection whatsoever for the governing body should the school encounter a deficit.

One prospect of an academy, although this may not only be reduced to academies if Gove gets his way, is the fact that they can set their own pay and conditions for their staff. This means that the school will have the ability to set their own incentives such as bonuses to retain key staff. However, this seems a little too much like performance related pay crossed with the pay structure used by CEOs and directors of banks who may have caused a recession in the last few years (hint hint). If certain teachers are attracting bonuses and others are not, morale could be crushed and staff turnover may well increase. This in turn will affect the continuity and quality of teaching at the school, which won’t please Ofsted (as if it’s possible to please them anyway but let’s go with it).

One of the potentially most significant differences lies in the delivery of the curriculum. While these academies will still have to take the standardised tests such as SATs and GCSEs which will be used to benchmark the school, the way they deliver the curriculum is a lot more flexible. However, you would think that deviating too far from the national curriculum is risky for a primary academy, as going into secondary school having deviated too far may cause the child to be under-prepared. I would however like to see schools and teachers be more creative, which is something that the current national curriculum doesn’t do (although next year’s curriculum could inspire creativity anyway). There is also the potential to change the timings of the school day and term times, which could possibly improve children’s learning, although research into the lengths of summer holidays and how it effects children’s learning has yet to be carried out and produce significant results. Also longer (or shorter for that matter) school days may cause problems for working parents with childcare etc.

Overall I would think carefully if I was the governing body of a school looking to become an academy. The increases in both cost and liabilities as well as the potential loss of support and expertise that an LA can provide is quite a tough burden to deal with. If you convert and suddenly hit a huge rise in costs and thus have to make cutbacks, it could end up damaging both the quality of teaching and resources, as well as the reputation of the school itself. We all know what happens to a school with a poor reputation: parents don’t send their children there, which reduces the amount of intake in money and children the school takes, potentially forcing the school to close. If a school is forced to close, that will then mean that parents will have to send their children further away, causing competition for places, running the risk of children not having a place in education.

Wow I’ve rabbited on a lot in this post. I hope you guys enjoy and if my friend who asked me about has survived reading about this, I hope this answers your question 🙂

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