Schools must become academies by 2022. Prolific education tweeter (@SchoolDuggery), and governor, Rachel Gooch advises what to do.

 

Budget Day for the Chancellor coincided with budget day for the large secondary school where I am a governor. Like Osborne, the financial outlook was rather worse than we had expected a year ago. Unlike the Chancellor, our bursar didn’t try to divert our attention from the in-year deficit by announcing some shiny new policies.

Osborne’s “look over there” tactics were, unusually for a budget, centred on education. There were baubles of money for school sport and extended schools, and an inquiry into maths to 18 for all (I’ve written it already: not enough maths teachers). But the big sparkler was the plan to turn every school into an academy by 2022.

If you’ve been paying attention, this policy isn’t a surprise. Cameron has said it several times and the recent consultation on the National Funding Formula made clear that local authorities will lose all their roles with respect to individual schools. I am certain that the government will make this happen and as I am both a governor of a large community secondary school and a director of a small primary multi-academy trust, I can see all sides of the policy.

When the news hit twitter on the eve of the Budget the howls were predictable: privatisation; the end of comprehensive education; an ideological, evidence-free assault on local authorities and teachers’ pay and conditions in the interests of profit-making sponsors. I don’t accept much of that. Academies are not private sector organisations, nor are they selective. Few have chosen to change pay and conditions and in an era of teacher shortages they would be mad to offer poorer terms. In any case, you don’t need to be an academy to choose how much to pay your teachers or when to award them an increment.

Academy Trusts are charities, and the only way to make money from them is to sell them services, as many local authorities do. There are some CEOs in large academy chains personally benefitting from the willingness of boards to overpay – that’s indefensible.

The real problem with Osborne’s policy is one of capacity at all levels. It needs more academy finance experts, more strategically-minded governors, enough auditors to turn round academy accounts in three short months, a middle tier that can support failing academies, an EFA that can administer grants for every school in the country and a DfE that is more than barely competent. Yet the Budget Red Book reveals that the money allocated to convert 15,000 schools is a paltry £140m. It isn’t enough.

Alongside the capacity deficit, we have a moral and democratic deficit. My primary school voted to convert to academy status as part of a local multi-academy trust (MAT) because the governors were convinced it would be the best long-term option for our pupils. Up to now, governors at my secondary school do not foresee enough benefits for pupils from conversion for it to risk a potentially disastrous distraction from the school’s core purpose of providing the best education it can.

Schools should not be forced to convert when those who know them best have considered the issues and decided it is not in the interests of their children. In time, running two systems will be difficult, but even now three-quarter of schools are still with their LAs. That is not a small rump that needs finishing off to make things easier for the DfE accountants.

Having said all that, this is the policy and I believe conversion is now unavoidable. My advice to governors faced with this news is this: it is your responsibility to make the best of it for your school. Do not just hope it will all go away. It is much better for everyone if you choose your own future rather than having it forced upon you. Only convert as a stand-alone academy if you are large and have no obvious partners. Otherwise, look for local partner schools that share your ethos or local established MATs where you will fit in.

Avoid large, established MATs where your voice will be small. Pay close attention to schemes of delegation and the composition of the Trust Board. Take time to do due diligence – you don’t want to find yourself responsible for another school’s deficit, pension hole or collapsed drains.

Get yourself a good project manager and don’t let the burden of conversion distract the head from teaching and learning. Support your finance staff – the main stress will fall on them. Be transparent – explain to everyone, all the time, what is happening and why. Don’t accept the first answer the DfE gives you on anything. Stay ethical and keep the children at the centre of what you do.