Forced conversion puts leaders under threat

Written by: HTU | Published:

As primary schools are being targeted for forced academy status, many headteachers are not being given the benefit of the doubt. Headteacher Update investigates the story behind the conversion statistics


David Cameron has announced that 400 additional schools will be targeted for forced academisation. The prime minister said: "We want to go further, faster, with 400 more under-performing primary schools paired up with a sponsor and either open or well on their way to becoming an academy by the end of next year."

That will mean 400 more primary heads approached by their local authority, Department for Education (DfE) brokers or academy sponsors and facing the direct or implied message – you’re no longer welcome here. The sad fact is that for the majority of the schools falling into this targeted group, the future employment of the incumbent head is far from secure.

Shirley Wellings at Western Springs Primary School in Rugeley was left in no doubt that her job was at stake: “We had to put as much information and evidence together as we could to tell our story. My senior leadership team were told they were fighting for their head.”

This was in spite of the fact that her school now met the floor targets and was on an upward trajectory. Their positive outlook was proved at the next inspection when overall effectiveness was judged to be “good”. Fortunately, Shirley stood her ground and continues to lead her improving school.

TUPE denied

The outlook is not as positive for many. Governing bodies and academy sponsors are being told that TUPE (Transfer of Undertakings Regulations that mean that terms and conditions for employees remain when a business is transferred from one owner to another) arrangements do not apply when a school converts to a sponsored academy.

For example, one broker told a group of governors in the North West: “The head of an academy is a different job (principal) to the head of an local authority maintained school…”

In some cases the post of academy principal is being advertised even before the head has left. Robert Kelsall, senior regional officer for the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) has witnessed sponsors advertising posts nationally while the headteacher is still there. He said: “We have intervened in several cases where this has happened. The sponsor claims that it isn’t a headteacher’s role that’s advertised but that of a principal. When our job analysts looked into this, they found that 93 per cent of the job description is identical.”

The NAHT is clear, this constitutes unfair dismissal and in a letter has urged DfE advisors to give, “correct and lawful advice” and “issue appropriate guidance to your teams”. They accept the need to tackle underperformance but only, “openly, fairly and lawfully”.

One primary head, who does not wished to be named, found that the initial advice given to herself and the governors conflicted with a sponsor’s later practice: “We were told originally as a staff group that TUPE would apply to all of us. Later I was told that my job was being advertised and I could apply.”

After pressure from the NAHT, the advert was withdrawn but not before the whole experience had placed enormous pressure upon the head and her staff. “I am still at the school but the whole process has been extremely stressful and upsetting for us all. The activities of the sponsor alongside those of HMI and the forced conversion to academy status have just been overwhelming.”

A common concern is the lack of clarity and information from the DfE and the academy sponsors: “I didn’t really know what was happening and wasn’t clear about what they could and couldn’t do. It was only with the help of the NAHT that it was explained to me and I was informed that they were not allowed to do this.”

It could be you

What is perhaps most worrying is that these headteachers are no different to the majority. Their schools might have had problems with floor standards in the past but there seems to be no account taken of current trends. The majority are working hard with their staff team to raise standards.

Now, the original, hypothetical list of 200 failing schools is to be joined by another 200 with no transparency as to the actual criteria being used.

Mr Kelsall suggests: “The DfE can’t produce the list and are using bullying tactics to force schools into taking academy status. Some of these schools are nowhere near the bottom of the pile. We feel there could be an ulterior motive for this – pick those with an upward trajectory so that after they’ve become an academy it can be shown how much they’ve improved.”

Local authorities

Headteachers have also been shocked by the receding support of their local authorities. Local authorities have found themselves caught in the middle of the process and have been recruited to approach schools themselves. The Co-operative College has found itself increasingly contacted by bemused heads seeking other improvement alternatives.

Sean Rogers, lead on trust schools at the College, said: “Michael Gove is becoming less enthusiastic about using academy orders and prefers that local authorities issue warning notices. Perhaps because there have now been nine disputes over forced academies that he has lost.”

In some cases, local authorities have been extremely reluctant to do this but they have been forced to comply by the DfE. Once the warning notices are issued, if no appeal is made and the notice is upheld, an interim executive board (IEB) can be appointed to replace the governing body. The IEB can then make the decision to take academy status. The level of resistance offered by local authorities has varied enormously across the country and across political parties. In some cases the support traditionally received from the local authority has been sadly lacking. In others, for example Coventry, there has been a successful defence.

Sharing out the spoils

So who is waiting quietly to mop up those spilling out from local authority control? The multi-chain academies seem to be the DfE’s preferred option, with schools being discouraged from looking for local school improvement alternatives. Mr Kelsall is concerned that other options for these schools are being rejected: ‘There’s a feeling that schools are being carved up between the sponsors on a geographical basis. The sponsors are top-slicing around 15 per cent of the school’s budget and using this for administrative costs. Some schools are finding that they are being charged more for some basic services.”

Mr Rogers raises concerns about the involvement of some diocesans, ‘There are examples of diocesans being offered money to set up multi-academy trusts and then bringing schools into academisation. This represents potentially a large number of schools and quite a sizeable chunk of money. These trusts do not necessarily have the capacity to support school improvement.”

Both the NAHT and the Co-operative College are keen to stress that they support tackling under-performance. However, they are against the promotion of a one-size-fits-all solution – academy status. Mr Kelsall adds: ‘There are other options for schools. They can enter into a hard or soft federation or go for co-operative trust status. If they are improving anyway, they are not obliged to do anything. What they mustn’t do is take their eye off the teaching and learning ball. If they are improving they should just continue doing what they are doing. The brokers are giving the impression that becoming an academy is inevitable. It isn’t.”

The government wants all schools to be academies. At present only 4.77 per cent of primaries are. Forced conversion is one way of increasing this. Mr Rogers added: “The Office of the Schools Commissioner is paid on commission. They are project managers rather than people with an education background. It’s very much about bullying and bluffing.”

Seeking help

It is difficult for a head faced with DfE officials to maintain the fight, although an increasing number are. The NAHT has produced podcasts and toolkits for schools who are being approached. Warning notices are being successfully challenged, alternative models of school improvement are being found and headteachers should not think they are on their own.

• For more primary education news from Headteacher Update, click here.

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