Primary schools resist efforts for total academisation

Written by: Suzanne O'Connell | Published:

More than 2,000 primary schools have chosen to become academies. Others have been forced into it due to Ofsted judgements. Among the almost 14,000 that remain, the prospect of having no choice in the matter is causing concern...

In 2010, “outstanding” schools were given the option of becoming academies and since then well over half of secondary schools have converted. Primary schools have been more hesitant and although many have chosen to become an academy, many more have chosen not to.

It was perhaps inevitable that the Department for Education (DfE) would decide to act to bring all schools “in line” with its preference for academies.

However, the announcement in the Budget and subsequent White Paper – Educational Excellence Everywhere – that all schools would be required to become academies by 2020 still came as something of a bolt out of the blue.

Much more welcome was the apparent change of heart shortly afterwards, when the DfE announced that they would not be legislating to achieve this after all.

However, a statement from education secretary Nicky Morgan quickly reminded us that the government’s intentions remain exactly the same – to ensure that all schools become academies. It is only the approach that has changed.

The DfE’s new strategy is to target schools in local authorities that it determines are no longer “viable” because of the number of academies already open. It will also target those in local authorities that are considered to be “underperforming”.

The think-tank Centre Forum has speculated that this could mean that 122 local authorities out of 152 will meet the criteria for all their schools to become academies.

On top of this, the Education and Adoption Act 2016 already gives Regional Schools Commissioners (RSCs) powers to intervene against schools “causing concern”.

This means an academy order for any maintained school with an inadequate Ofsted judgement, and intervention (with an academy order possible) for those judged “requires improvement”.

The “schools causing concern” category also includes so-called “coasting” schools – a large number of schools, many of which have a good or outstanding Ofsted judgements. An academy order is again an option for the RSCs.

There’s no u-turn

Carolyn Jones is headteacher of Springhead Primary School in East Riding, an outstanding school that had taken the decision not to become an academy. She has very strong views about her school’s wish to remain within local authority control.
She told Headteacher Update: “Nicky Morgan helpfully points out that when she says she is ‘listening’, she is only doing so in order to decide how to proceed, not if.

“The DfE has announced that it will no longer legislate for academisation, but it doesn’t need to as the secretary of state’s powers are so strong they can be used to create academies using the various loopholes which they have carefully left themselves.”

That wholesale conversion is still planned to continue is also noted by Colin Harris, headteacher of Warren Park Primary School in Hampshire. He said: “They will still press for academies. What ever happened to choice?”

A letter from the National Union of Teachers, National Association of Head Teachers, Association of Teachers and Lecturers, Association of Educational Psychologists, and UNISON, sent to the secretary of state, highlights what they consider the negative impact of “mass academisation” to be, including:

  • Ending the role of school improvement partners.
  • Reduced school autonomy with the majority of schools required to join a multi-academy trust.
  • Ending the local management of schools.
  • Marginalising parents by removing the requirement for elected parent places on academy trust governing bodies.
  • Weakening local co-ordination of education provision, such as that for pupils with SEND.
  • Threatening of fair admissions for all local children.

Their request for the Education Bill to be withdrawn from the Queen’s Speech was ignored. The government’s conviction that academy status is the right route for all will not be shaken.

It isn’t right for us

Warren Park did not slip into remaining as a maintained local authority school by default – they actively chose this route. Mr Harris explained: “First, I have all the independence I want. We are an outstanding school and have used our resources well and see no reason to change.”

Likewise, Roddy Fairclough, headteacher at Newbury Park Primary School in Redbridge, does not see the benefit in becoming being an academy in the current climate. He said: “Newbury Park is building a new future centred around providing an excellent education for its pupils through consistent high-quality and engaging teaching. We can achieve this through a real collaboration between schools without having to become an academy.”

Many schools have created their own support networks to prop up or replace local authority services. There is an awareness that alternative sources of support will need to be found as the capacity of the local authority diminishes.

Mr Fairclough has had good experiences of working with local authorities but also recognises that alternative models will be needed: “I currently work in a local authority where the majority of schools are either good or outstanding so we must be doing something right.

“We are currently looking at alternative models and ways of working that focus on collaboration and joined thinking to meet both financial constraints and school improvement priorities.”

However, being part of a multi-academy trust (MAT) is not necessarily the right model for everyone.

‘No’ to academy chains

The DfE’s White Paper outlines its clear support for MATs and the intention that they should be the replacement for local authorities.
However, from what Headteacher Update has heard, the prospect of becoming part of a MAT can be more of a disincentive than academisation itself.

“We do not want to become a homogenised clone of an academy chain,” Ms Jones said. She is quite happy with the way their local authority works.

“We have always liked being able to pick and choose what support we receive from the local authority. If the local authority offers advice and we don’t agree with it we simply go our own way.”

No proof it works

Whereas headteachers are happy to make changes where they consider that a better education will result, some of them are not convinced that becoming an academy will make that difference.

“They don’t know how to make an outstanding school,” Mr Harris said. “We now have a system based upon a narrow curriculum and which is data-driven. Will this change if I become an academy?”

Mr Fairclough is similarly uncertain about the real impact of conversion. He said: “I don’t necessarily believe academisation puts control or autonomy in the hands of schools, headteachers and least of all teachers. There are both successful and unsuccessful academies just like there are other schools.”

The Education Select Committee agrees. After its in-depth investigation into academies last year, it called on the government to “stop exaggerating the success of academies”. It said that “academisation is not always successful nor is it the only proven alternative for a struggling school”.

Ms Jones and her school have taken a proactive approach to dealing with the possibility of forced academisation. Her school is actively campaigning against the policy. They have already had a parents’ evening to express their concerns, which proved to be “a real show of solidarity”.

She encourages other schools to do likewise and make their views felt directly and through the communities they work in.

“I know that some heads and governors feel that it is pointless trying to resist, that we might as well give in because, as one RSC put it, ‘you don’t want to be the only one left in the playground’. If we take that view then we are pressurising each other into jumping when we don’t want to.”

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