The government announced last week that all schools must become academies by 2020. This means a change to the management of our schools. All council-run schools will become academies, run by a charitable trust on a paid government contract. There is more about what this means here.
A few days ago I wrote about Community College Whitstable becoming part of Swale Academies Trust.The latest Gazette suggests there will be a consultation on this academy takeover. I don’t think the consultation means much, the decision seems to be already made, the council and the governors believe a quick change is in the interests of the pupils.
I’ve been trying to keep an open mind about the government’s announcement. I actually like academies as an idea, some of the best new state schools are academies, such as Michaela Community School in Brent. Some of the best state schools to convert to academies have also taken on schools and improved them, such as the King Edward VI school taking on Sheldon Heath Academy. The mood of the nation is now anti-academies. I’m not convinced this super-quick system change is good, but I don’t think academies are always a bad thing.
Here’s my thoughts on the positives of an academy system :
- Schools have less hope of radical change if only local authorities manage schools. Academies offer something new and fresh, and can bring improvements. A poorly run council school might be transformed by a change of management to an academy trust. If schools are only council managed there are no options for management change if the council is handling education badly.
- Our education system is problematic with a mix of council maintained and academy schools. There are different rules and procedures for each and it is confusing to parents. It streamlines our education system if all schools are run consistently in a nationwide system.
- The theory of the academy system is that the best academy chains can influence more schools, so good policies can spread. This allows for education innovation and varied styles of schools that give parents more choice.
- There are some local authorities doing a good job with their schools, while others are managing education badly. School governors also vary in experience. An academy system may be a fairer system, with the best academy chains expanding, avoiding regional variation and offering better leadership for more schools.
- Schools can work together if they share the same management, this means teachers can move between schools if there is a need, or ideas and resources can be shared.
- Parents, specialist groups and charities can create academy schools with the free school policy, this creates variety and specialist provision.
- Academy schools are paid per pupil and need to please parents to run financially successful schools, theoretically this should mean they respond to parents needs.
Here are my thoughts on the negatives of the academy change:
- This speedy drive to turn schools into academies ignores the fact many schools are providing excellent education now. They are being forced to find new ‘bosses’ which gives stressful work to school leaders and may unsettle established schools. Many schools see no benefit at all, especially primary schools who so far have mostly chosen not to become academies.
- Most schools join Multi Academy Trusts, chains of schools which have a governing body based at a head office. Academies don’t need to offer local accountability or have school governors, although some do. Management of a school might be far from the school with less awareness of its community’s needs.
- There is a high cost to converting schools to academies. There is a large fee for legal work, for transfer of school land, and academy chains are paid a fee for taking over a school. It also adds a layer of expensive management to schools. Academy chain bosses and trustees are often highly paid, and there will be many more school managers within this system.
- Despite the fact Multi Academy Trusts are ‘charitable trusts’ there is much talk of abuse of the system to give financial benefits to trust managers. Academy trustees are allowed to make deals with their own profit making businesses. There have been cases of school bosses changing uniform to a provider they have a profitable deal with, and there is secrecy about who is appointed to a trustee team. There is certainly a lack of accountability in the current system that makes abuse of power likely.
- There is a clear lack of good academy trusts, yet the government is asking all schools to convert to become an academy by 2020. It seems hard to believe this will be possible when estimates say 1000 new trusts will be needed. I worry that troubled schools will not be wanted by most academy chains, especially as there will be so many schools looking for academy trusts. The plan for an academy trust league table means trusts might seek schools with the best results and avoid troubled schools.
- There is no clear consensus on whether academies have better results than local authority maintained schools. Nicky Morgan said it is no ‘magic bullet.’ There are clearly good and bad academy schools, just as there are good and bad local authority schools. There is little proof that academy schools have better results.
- Academy schools are motivated by results, they have little interest in taking children with special educational needs, and there are examples of academy schools persuading ‘difficult’ children to leave.
- Academy trusts often have standard methods for all their schools, it can mean a business like approach to education that stifles the creativity of teachers and school leaders to create an individualistic local school.
Despite the longer list ‘against’ than ‘for’ academies, I just about come out in favour of an academy system. Our local authority system has too many flaws because councils don’t have budget to run schools well, too often they are poor leaders and don’t appoint great staff to run schools expertly. It also becomes harder for councils to find staff to run schools expertly in a competitive environment where academy trusts pay education experts more. So our two-kinds-of-school system puts the councils in a weak position. It’s all very well to say we want the council to run Local School High when it’s doing great and needs little management, but what happens when the school gets in trouble?
Council’s don’t have a great record at turning troubled schools into successful schools. This is possibly because the academies can pay more for education leaders who have better skills. It might also be argued that they run schools better as they use professionals instead of volunteer school governors.
However an academy system needs careful monitoring and the current system is set up badly. It needs a whole lot of good rules and checks in place to stop academy trusts gaming the system, avoiding pupils with poor results or special needs, and in some cases thinking more about money than pupil welfare. However there are some academy trusts that are run by great trusts, some use a co-operative model, and some set up by parents or charities to further specialist provision for dyslexia or special schools. The academy system means a bunch of parents or specialists can set up a school for children they really care about it. The council alternative is time and cash poor education staff creating a special school just because they have to. Great academies made by people who care should be encouraged.
How will this education shift affect Whitstable schools? Of the eight schools in town only one is already an academy. St.Mary’s Primary School is part of the Kent Catholic Schools Partnership, an academy sponsor overseeing many local Catholic schools. Church schools are a special case and I think Endowed may find a partnership with other CofE schools to form an academy.
It is hard to predict what will happen with the rest… Whitstable Junior, Swalecliffe, Westmeads, and Joy Lane are the sort of schools that are hit hardest by this change. They are all highly rated schools with good community links. They don’t need this, it offers no benefits to them at all. Their governors must be fuming about needing to give away their school, while not even necessarily retaining control of the governance. I think the best bet may be to club together, anyone for a Whitstable Schools Trust? Or KCC appear to be in the process of forming an academy trust, if this happens they may involve local governors and offer a ‘no change’ system that keeps most of the control with the school. This is a best of both worlds approach, will people who want council run schools be appeased by KCC academy trust?
I don’t know what to say about CCW, this is the school I care about the most. This new legislation makes no difference to its decision to join Swale Academies Trust. KCC pressed for the move, the council management didn’t fix the school’s problems and an academy is the answer. This is after all what the system is all about. Kent County Council’s cabinet minister for schools may have spoken out against the forced academy change, but KCC had no method to help CCW other than to suggest an academy.
Despite a lot of protests I think the academy laws will go through. If you want to read more on either side I can recommend this article for the arguments against, and this article for the arguments in favour of academisation.
I am still, just about, hanging on to a a belief that academies can be a good thing. There is a huge and vital need to fix academy trust’s lack of accountability, the failure to recognise parents and local communities, and the greed of their management. I wouldn’t want them to expand until these problems are fixed, and I think expanding rapidly may make these problems worse.
And all this talk about school management is a distraction and changes little. Bad council schools are bad schools, bad academy schools are bad schools. I wish we would focus on the education issues that matter most, like a lack of teachers and a mad results culture, instead we’re faffing with who pays the bills and manages the teachers and it’s such a small part of the problem.