Academy status – to be or not to be?

Written by: HTU | Published:

Whether or not to convert to an academy is one of the fundamental questions facing primary leaders across the country today. Nick Bannister speaks to three heads about the factors that made them go for, or reject, academy status

Almost 2,500 schools in England have converted to academy status since the policy was announced by the coalition government in 2010.

More than 700 of those schools are convertor primaries. Add to that figure the existing academies that were brought in under the Labour administration, then the figure goes to more than 860. The Department for Education (DfE) says that around eight per cent of primaries are now either open or “pipeline” academies, with many more to come.

As with any programme that represents a fundamental shift in state education provision, the academies programme has become the subject of fierce debate. The arguments for and against the academy programme are familiar, but what factors do primary headteachers consider when they look at academy status? What makes them go for academy status or reject it?

This is a chance for schools to seize the initiative of educational reform

Rayleigh Primary, a 420-pupil school in Essex, is planning to convert to an academy by April 2013. Headteacher Peter Malcolm views conversion as an opportunity for schools to take control in what he says is a chaotic system.

“When you look at the system at the moment there is a lot of chaos,” he explained. “There are a lot of academy sponsors being set up with bureaucratic structures and these in my view are taking tax-payers’ money away from schools and into administration. That’s totally counter to the notion of schools being self-determining.

“Fundamentally the drive is not to do with status. It is about genuine accountability. The local authority currently holds this power but it has been very slow to intervene to drive up standards.

“The academy movement to my mind is a solution to what I would call an accountability problem for educational standards. It is about the fact that for many years not enough work has been done to raise standards in schools for children. Someone has to be accountable for that.”

Many schools that have converted to academy status in the past two years have cited money as one of the reasons driving their decision. Schools converting to academies have been entitled to the funding that was previously “top-sliced” and given to the local authority to provide services back to schools. But this is set to end next year with a national funding formula that will narrow the funding difference between local authority-controlled and academy schools.

“Financially, with a national funding formula coming in, the difference between academies and local authority funding is going to narrow dramatically,” Mr Malcolm said. “And already with the new national curriculum coming in there is very little reason in terms of curriculum innovation to look at academy status.

“The only true reason to change for us is that this is a chance for schools to seize the initiative of educational reform rather than leave it to others.”

He added: “From my analysis of the situation, schools need to step up to the plate and own that accountability, join together in groups and become sponsors in their own right. At least then we will have people doing the job responsibly and supporting others. Accountability is better held by schools than other bodies.”

I don’t think our pupils will get a better deal from us becoming an academyRichard Gower is headteacher of Kingsleigh Primary School in Bournemouth. The 500-pupil school is in a challenging area of the Dorset seaside town, with 35 per cent of pupils currently receiving free school meals.

He has discussed academy status with his governing body but it is not a route he wants to go down.

“I’m happy with the support we get from Bournemouth local authority,” he told Headteacher Update. “Soon after I joined the school it received a notice to improve from Ofsted. We are getting there but for us as a school there is no gain in becoming an academy. We’re receiving a lot of investment from the authority – during the summer pipe work on the school site was renewed at a cost of £30,000 and we are currently consulting on our plans for £2 million worth of building works, also funded by the authority.”

He continued: “From the pupil’s point of view, I feel that the local authority is pretty hands-off. It is a small unitary authority with a small team and it does not have the big brother mentality that some might have. They go where the support is needed but it is with a light-touch most of the time.”

Mr Gower is looking at other routes should circumstances change for the school. These include converting the school into a Co-operative Trust in which parents, staff, learners and members of the local community run the school on co-operative principles. He describes this as being a “half-way house” between local authority and academy status.

“We have just had an Ofsted which has given us a ‘requires improvement’ judgement,” he said. “If we were to receive another judgement like that we could find ourselves forced into academy status. So I am investigating other alternatives such as Co-operative Trusts. There is no incentive to do this at the moment but circumstances can change quite quickly.”

He adds: “I am not anti-academies per se, but at the moment for this particular school and this particular area it is not something for us. I don’t think our pupils will get a better deal from us becoming an academy.”

Academy status felt like the logical next step

Brook Hill Academy, a 330-pupil primary in Oakham, Rutland, embraced the opportunity to become an academy and converted in September 2011. The move was a logical next step for the school, according to headteacher Sharon Milner.“We have a very good relationship with the local authority but the problem for us was that it is a small authority – the smallest in the country – and there are capacity issues,” she explained.

“Because we are an outstanding school, there was very little on offer for us. The resources that were on offer were going to schools that needed it more than us so we felt that academy status would allow us to target funding to our children.”

An active governing body was one of the key reasons why the school went for academy status, Ms Milner said. “We have a very supportive governing body that offers a range of professional skills so we felt we would be able to manage,” she added. “Also we had run our own finances through our school business manager for some time so this felt like the logical next step.”

The conversion has been positive for the school, she believes: “Provision for our children has improved. We fund a dyslexia specialist teacher to come in for one day a week along with intervention groups and leaders for our forest school which we run twice a week. It also means we can fund our gifted and talented programme and extended school services.”

Communicating as widely and as often as possible was key to the success of the conversion process, she added.

“The biggest thing for me was communication. We had a questionnaire on the website, open evenings and coffee mornings. There were lots of opportunities for people to come in and find out more and talk to us about the plans.

“The only slight niggle was that we did not involve the unions until quite late. I would tell heads considering conversion that the unions should be involved early on.”

Ms Milner believes that the decision to convert to academy status needs to be dictated by local context and, above all, the needs of the children. It may not be right for everyone. But at that time we were ready to stand alone.”

Primary Associate Academies

An initiative to recruit leaders from academy convertor schools so that they can help primaries “make an informed choice” about academy status has been launched.

Headteachers, chairs of governors and school business managers who want to share their conversion experiences with other primaries are being invited to join a national team of Primary Associate Academies (PAAs).

The PAAs – there will be around 50 across England by March 2013 – will each receive a grant to fund their work to help primary schools decide whether to become academies.

The Department for Education says that they will do this by helping schools understand the range of factors in the decision-making process, including what decisions to make before conversion, understanding the role and responsibilities of governors before during and after conversion and the potential impact of academy status in areas like finance, HR and legal status.

The initiative is being run by the DfE leadership agency, the National College for School Leadership, in partnership with FASNA (Freedom and Autonomy for Schools – National Association), a national organisation that represents the interests of self-governing schools, including academies.

More information on the scheme is available at

• Nick Bannister is an education writer and communications consultant.

• For more primary education best practice and advisory articles from Headteacher Update, click here.

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