Academies have been given different freedoms depending on when they signed a funding agreement or what they managed to negotiate with a government minister. Suggested reforms from an IPPR seminar would not threaten school autonomy. Instead they would allow the government to set out a more consistent set of freedoms — and help to reduce bureaucracy in the process

The academies programme gives schools, teachers and education experts the freedom to work out how best to raise pupil outcomes. But there are growing problems with the way that individual academies are contracted with the government.

When a school converts into an academy it signs a contract – known as a “funding agreement” – which sets out the specific freedoms and constraints it must operate under. Government ministers have defended academy contracts as a way to give academies more autonomy.

But our report, A Legal Bind, shows that this system of contracts is not fit for purpose as the number of academies increases. Academies have been given different freedoms depending on when they signed a funding agreement or what they managed to negotiate with a government minister. This means there is an inconsistent “patchwork” of freedoms among different academies.

It makes no sense, for example, for an outstanding academy to be forced to offer careers guidance, and a poorly performing academy to be exempt from this requirement simply because the latter school signed its funding agreement a few months earlier. In a particularly strange example, if a school became an academy between October 2010 and May 2014 it could be exempt from national standards for school meals (because this was not included in its contract), although every other academy has to follow them. And for some of the earliest academies, the government has found it difficult to intervene if they underperform, because of the terms of their contract. Nobody benefits from such an opaque and inconsistent system.

Nobody benefits from such an opaque and inconsistent system

With an eye to the future, and the fact that David Cameron has said he wants all schools to become academies, it is worth thinking about these issues before spreading them across the country’s 20,000 schools.

A number of possible reforms were suggested by specialists who attended a seminar organised by IPPR last year. Here are the best ones:

First, we could return to a system where schools have to follow conditions set down in legislation, instead of through individual contracts. This would not stop academies from having autonomy – as the government would set out in law what freedoms academies should have. But it would restore the government’s ability to intervene and make changes that apply to all schools, avoiding all the inconsistencies we now have.

Alternatively, we could reform funding agreements so they work more like a standard contract between the government and a service provider. Instead of funding agreements that continue on a rolling basis, which are difficult to update, contracts would be renewed every five years. This would be similar to the contracts used in many US charter schools. It would allow academies certainty over the freedoms and constraints they have been given, but also give the government opportunities to regularly update contract terms, ensuring more consistency between them. It would also provide a regular opportunity for the government to monitor performance, and to withdraw a contract if a school provider is performing poorly.

Or, we could opt for a half-way house. The government could move towards “slimmed-down” funding agreements for academies. These would contain more clauses obliging academies to follow constraints and rules set out in law and would give academies some sense of contractual independence while retaining the government’s ability to impose changes on all schools. There is already a precedent for this: academies must abide by regulations on special educational needs as set out in the Children and Families Act.

None of these reforms would represent a threat to school autonomy. In fact, it would enable the government to set out a more consistent set of freedoms and help to reduce bureaucracy in the process.

If the government goes through with its promise to turn every school into an academy, then it will need to create a more coherent system of governance that gives all academies the freedoms they were promised.

Follow Jonathan Clifton on Twitter @jp_clifton