If you’re not steeped in education speak, you may have felt nonplussed by the news last week that all schools were to become Academies. You may be aware of people who feel very unhappy about it and others who don’t see the problem. What seems to be lacking in the debate is clear information for parents. As usual.
Like any school, there are good and bad academies. Born out of New Labour, the academy programme was introduced to ‘rescue’ failing schools. The idea was that by bringing in fresh management, often new buildings, and freedom to innovate, schools might turn themselves around. It’s a bit of a myth that academies gain control of the land and buildings when they take them over, or that they are a form of privatisation, free to make a profit. It is written into their contracts that they only have the lease of the land and buildings – usually for 100 years; that they must use those facilities for educational purposes and that they should not make a profit. These measures should protect schools from being sold off or turned into money making exercises. Should. But, there are many ways to turn being an academy sponsor to your advantage of course – I’ll outline a few of these later.
There are two kinds of academy – converter and forced. Converters choose to become academies. In the early days of this government, there were some tempting financial incentives to do so and many secondary schools in particular took up the offer. When Nicky Morgan presents rosy statistics about academies, she usually selects them from the group of converter academies. In most cases, these schools were looking for ways to improve and sought academisation as a way of gaining a degree of autonomy and some financial means to push forward improvement.
The other type of academy, however, is one that has been forced to leave local authority control and be taken over by a sponsor. For the remaining schools – 89% of primary schools and 41% of secondary schools – who had not chosen to become an academy, they will now be forced to. This is upsetting a lot of Headteachers for many reasons. Firstly, they argue that as a “good” or “outstanding” school already, there is no need for them to convert – what they are doing now is working. They argue that the time, legal costs and energy it will take to convert will take them and their staff away from focusing on what matters – teaching and learning. To put this into context, it costs around £25,000 per school to convert. All of this money goes on legal fees and the time taken to do this for a senior leader is considerable. The total estimated cost for forced academisation is £500,000,000 – equivalent to 20,000 teachers at a time where there is a desperate shortage of teachers. For many teachers and parents the issue here is not whether academies can be good or bad, but whether the outcomes justify the cost.
Furthermore, research suggests that schools forced to become academies do not improve. In fact in many cases, they become worse. This research prompted the Education Select Committee in Parliament to ask the government to desist from exaggerating the benefits of academies last year. In addition, the education watchdog, Ofsted has warned that leading academy chains are failing young people and not offering the improvements they promised. Further concerns have been raised about the salaries of CEOs of academy chains – while the sponsors cannot post profits, there is no limit on the pay they can offer their executives. The head of the Harris chain, for example, earns £400,000 per year – far, far more than an equivalent head of Education in a Local Authority. And there have been a number of unsavoury claims of academy leaders profiting from their position.
Some schools have been happy to convert to academy status and their parent body and children are happy too. They have found partners and sponsors who share their ethos and values and who offer valuable expertise. The RSA chain of academies are committed, for example, to broadening out the curriculum offer for children and ensuring they have access to Arts and Creativity as well as academic programmes. There are many other chains and sponsors with strong altruistic values. But as a parent, you have little choice as to which one to choose. Some are already highly experienced in education, some are couch groups, some have no prior connections with education whatsoever. Chains tend to target a geographical area, so your choices of sponsor become a post code lottery. Curriculum freedoms mean that some may offer exciting, broad learning experiences, but equally they may result in schools narrowing their offer to only that which is tested.
One of the biggest concerns raised from the announcement last week was the changes to Qualified Teacher Status. At the moment, if your child attends a local authority school, they must be taught by a qualified teacher. This rule does not apply to academies. In fact the teacher need not even had a degree. One academy in Leeds last year advertised for two mathematics teachers – their job descriptions did not even demand an A Level in Maths. Of course, unqualified teachers are cheap. But they are also likely to be transient and ill equipped for the demands of a classroom. The reality of unqualified teachers in state schools is far removed from the idyll in some of our leading public schools, where Olympians and experienced academics will visit the school to coach the students. In the state sector, the unqualified tend to be just that. Unqualified.
Even trainee teachers with degrees who would normally have undergone rigorous training either in a university or through a school based organisation, will not have QTS conferred upon them until their Headteacher decides to do so. Moving a teacher from non-qualified to qualified pay scales is very expensive. It will be tempting for senior leaders to defer offering qualified status to their staff in the face of cuts and financial challenges in schools. This is a grey area and a worrying one.
It would be far too simplistic to say that all academies are bad or good. But it’s not too radical to say that this policy is worrying. It removes choice for parents, who up to now may have had the choice of an academy, a locally run school, a church school or other. It claims to offer headteachers autonomy, but in fact is forcing them into a decision few want to make. The hunt for a good sponsor or the work of starting up from scratch a MAT partnership of your own is daunting for heads, and diverting of their attention. As a policy it seems to have little evidence to support it in terms of what the Secretary of State claims it will offer. And it seems to completely miss the key issues facing the education system at the moment – namely a chronic shortage of teachers and cuts to funding resulting in higher class sizes and reduced resources. And what if the school coverts to an academy and then fails? The proposals suggest that the schools will fall under the control of the Secretary of State. That might be alright if you’re based in London. But a parent with concerns in Newcastle is a long way from the DfE.
Most of all, parents of children with special educational needs have additional cause for concern. A recent report found that academies were far more likely to exclude children with SEN than local schools – often illegally – and that some were guilty of modes of selection that meant they were not fully complying with entrance procedures. This is still a matter for concern.
As a parent, I’m worried about what will happen to my local school – the one I would automatically have sent my child too at the age of 11. It is currently the only secondary in the area under local authority control. As a teacher who has worked in some wonderful academies with great vision and leadership, and yet who has seen others crush their staff and pupils with bureaucracy and ideology, I know how patchy and unreliable the outcome could be. It worries me. It should worry you.