Introduction & Posting Guidelines - Please Read First
The previous post showed that, in the short term at least, there IS a strong financial incentive for schools to convert now: that is, before funding arrangements are equalised across the education sector. Here, a headteacher considers some of those and other issues involved for the benefit of parents.
Read the full article here.
A number of parents have enquired, through this blog, about our thoughts around the DfE’s offer to become an academy. The conversion to an academy school, even with sweeping changes made by the new government, remains a complex process. Both in terms of legislation and philosophy it is not a move that should be taken lightly or without due consideration. Recent weeks have seen a very rapid series of changes implemented by the Department for Education and the offer to allow outstanding schools such as ours the opportunity to become academies is at the forefront of these changes.
Why become an academy school?
There is more power to innovate within the current curricular and statutory guidance than many school leaders realise: 95% of the requests to innovate made of the department over the past three years have addressed powers already possessed by schools. This is even more the case for outstanding schools, for whom the OfSTED inspection framework gives even greater latitude to explore creative ways to drive standards higher.
So, despite the rhetoric, the main drive for moving towards academy status is not greater curricular freedom. We already have most of the curricular freedom that we want. That leaves us two other main differences that academy status affords, one of which has some appeal, the other probably less so: funding and admissions.
The Local Authority keeps something in the region of 10% of schools’ funding to pay for centralised services. By becoming an academy we would receive funds directly from the department and so would retain that extra 10%. Our financial consultant advises us that we would gain around £400,000 per year. Initially this seems very attractive: it equates to about 14 new teachers or 28 new teaching assistants, nearly one extra adult per class however you implemented it.
Nevertheless, there are issues to be considered. Services which are currently centralised, such as educational welfare officers, educational psychologists, human resources and so on would need to be paid for from our 10% new funding. Although competition in this regard would be very healthy (and exists already), if many schools in a region become academies then it is possible that Local Authorities simply will not be able to provide the services currently available because staff will have been lost as a result of all the academies’ 10% funding withdrawal.
The Local Authority would also cease to be the employer of staff here and this would need to be undertaken by the governors through an academy trust. This trust would need to appoint a governing body to manage the academy, as well as co-ordinate either the transfer of the land on which the school is sited, or to enter into a 125 year lease with the Local Authority. The current wave of new academies receive £25k from the government towards the costs of these changes, although total costs may be more like £50 – 70k. It is not certain if this initial £25k will still be on offer for later academy conversions. The role as employer will not be easy. An academy would not have to participate in national wage agreements and this would cause high levels of anxiety amongst staff’s professional associations such as the NUT, NASUWT etc. Of particular concern to these associations is the possible future reduction in pension contributions that an academy employer might make, so any re-negotiation of the terms of employment by governors of the academy trust will be hard won.
That said, in schools we have had 10 years of unprecedented funding. It is unlikely that we will see similar funding within the careers of our current teachers. This is why we have been able to employ so many teaching assistants, create new buildings, buy new technology and create new facilities. We are in a very different place now, with a much more bleak budgetary future and our expectations need to be managed accordingly.
Therefore, seizing control of what amounts to a 10% slice of our budget is very appealing and would safeguard many of the aspects of our school life that we value, such as our ability to keep investing, pushing the boundaries of what we can achieve for our children and innovating in our relentless pursuit of excellence.
Furthermore, we manage our finances very well for current spend and future plans, but each year we operate under threat of having some of our surplus balances ‘clawed back’ by the Local Authority if they are above a small percentage figure of our overall budget. Academy status would prevent this distorting action on our long term financial plans. However, it should be noted that if the new financial year brings further cuts to schools’ budgets, then the 10% may increasingly become a means to simply maintaining the status quo. This is obviously not a bad thing, but it is a different understanding of what we may have to use the 10% to achieve.
Admissions would change too, with academy status, as the school would become its own admitting authority. In comparison to the financial issues of academy status, this aspect has received less attention, however, it is equally important. The school could establish its own admissions criteria, much as foundation schools do currently and admit children on this basis. However the administration and appeals process would again have to be managed by the trust and governors, rather than by the Local Authority. This is a return to how we used to operate as up until 2 years ago we managed the administration of admissions rather than it being handled by central services at the LA. However, administrative changes are procedural and do not change admissions criteria. Becoming an academy would allow the school to reconsider and set new admissions criteria and many parents and prospective parents would have very strong views on any proposed changes such a trust would make in this regard.