We don’t currently understand the freedoms that converting might give us – what additional freedoms are there? We’re pretty much left to do what we want at the moment anyway as our local authority is quite ‘hands-off’, so what will the difference be?

Christine says: I’m not surprised you don’t understand the ‘freedoms’ that converting might bring, because their existence can sometimes be elusive. Freedoms do exist but these days they are only really exercised at multi-academy trust (MAT) level. And even at MAT level, to make the most of the opportunities offered by academy status, a change in mindset is needed. Freedoms, as they exist, are freedom ‘to’ rather than freedom ‘from’ the local authority and local political control.

Freedoms are freedom ‘to’ rather than freedom ‘from’ local political control

Of course, you could argue that maintained schools have had freedom from local authority control for a number of years. That is, of course, the point of this question. While local authorities might not control what happens on a day-to-day basis in a maintained school, their sometimes paternalistic, consultant led, top-down local authority school improvement way of doing things can stifle school-led initiative and creativity. The new vision of a school-led collaborative system requires school leaders to seize the opportunities of academy status and make links with schools across local authority boundaries to improve themselves and others. They will ask (with apologies to JFK) ‘not what their local authority can do for them; but what they can do for their community of schools’. A passive approach will not help; the system relies on proactive and dynamic leadership.

A colleague once said that making the leap to academy status is akin to a young person leaving home for the first time. It takes the change in mindset for a young person to want to leave home, make their own choices and be accountable for decisions – right or wrong. Without over-simplifying the issues, the same applies to setting up a MAT. It requires a lot of hard work, and can be incredibly difficult and frustrating. But the change in mindset means that the more you put in, the more you, your pupils and other schools and their pupils can benefit and that can be very rewarding.

There are three main academy freedoms and these are:

1. to develop and innovate the curriculum you offer children and young people;

2. the freedom to set the length of the school day and term dates; and

3. the freedom to introduce your own standards for teaching pay and condition.

To be fair, there is evidence that these freedoms can make a difference if they are used ‘to’ drive school improvement. For example, some academies have raised standards by:

– designing a curriculum more relevant to the needs of the community they serve;

– providing extra opportunities for study by lengthening the school day; or

– introducing performance pay arrangements to attract and retain the best staff.

Schools converting into an existing MAT have less legal autonomy than a local authority school

So how do these freedoms relate if you decide you don’t want to set up a new MAT but want to join an existing trust? As I’ve already said, some or all of the freedoms are enjoyed at MAT level rather than at the constituent school level. It’s a fact that schools converting into an existing MAT have less legal autonomy than a local authority school. This may well be welcomed by many head teachers who want to ditch routine admin and finance tasks to concentrate on delivering high standards of teaching and learning. But it will not suit everyone.

Of course, some multi-academy trusts delegate considerable powers and accountability to their constituent schools but many do not. So it’s very important that schools joining an established trust fully understand how this delegation works. To do this you need to read the scheme of delegation that MATs must publish on their website. We often hear about the process of due diligence that a MAT will undertake on a school joining them, however, it’s important for the school considering joining, to undertake a similar exercise. ‘What freedoms do I get?’ is one of the key questions you should ask yourselves, which you will also want to consider alongside the culture and values of the MAT you are joining.

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