Opinion

Academy conversion is an unnecessary distraction – here’s how to survive it

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.

 

 



Your thoughts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

3 Comments

  1. Ben Gibbs

    An excellent piece. But buyer beware. I was on a governing body that did all that due diligence back in 2011, evaluating our options, carefully selecting a small MAT that offered support (what’s the point of being a standalone in a system where improvement is about collaboration?), an ethos we believed in, ‘earned autonomy’, and the safety-net required for kids should the governors and SLT fail in its obligations. The transfer was seamless, and the shot in the arm was like a tonic. For about a year. Then, having achieved ‘good’, we were off their radar. Forgotten, like the worried well. They had inadequate schools to focus on, after all. Within two years, with very little support, no centrally procured services, a Scheme of 100% Delegation, not one single contact from a Trustee ever, and no way out (and god knows we looked), we fell foul of a brutal, punitive Ofsted team of (soon to be sacked) AIs and dived into special measures. The Trust dumped the SLT and LGB, and kept the school by the skin of its teeth. However, one year on, the inexperienced team they installed have failed, things that weren’t as bad as Ofsted said they were now are, and the school has been rebrokered. So yes, choose carefully, but remember that things can change. Keep the ejector seat armed!

  2. You say,
    “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.”

    But if a MAT grows with you in it (as seems to be the DfE plan), all of these things could come to pass and your voice becomes ever smaller. It seems that you then have no way out. Why bother to become a Head Teacher or local governor in these circumstances? You would be unable to speak your mind as collective loyalty for the MAT would be demanded (Look at the number of gagging clauses in redundancy agreements from MATs). Where is the job satisfaction? A bleak prospect!

  3. Kevin Quigley

    Interesting commentary. The 3rd from last paragraph is the most pertinent, but also the most difficult to achieve. I am especially interested in primary phase only MATs in poorly funded Shires.

    This is exactly the scenario that many schools will be faced with outside the inflated budgets of large urban areas. In our town we have several schools interested in joining together into a primary phase MAT, yet there is no additional funding available over an above what the LA funding formula delivers and all these schools are running close to the bone right now. There is simply no excess capacity to take on the load of conversion so headteachers can continue to focus on the core task – deliverying outstanding education.

    When the funding is 60% (on a per pupil basis, not including SEN or PP) of some schools the same size in a large city, there is simply less cash available to throw at a problem.

    As responsible governors we have to ask the questions that affect long term viability.

    Our local schools have tried to get the inside picture on a primary MAT structure but the DfE response is generic and other MATs seem very reticent to discuss fundamental issues like funding. In all the (many) meetings I have attended the focus (from DfE) is all about the benefits a MAT would offer, such as enabling higher level teaching skills, transferring teachers between MAT schools and offering a group ethos and focussed CPD. Of course the economies of scale thing is mentioned ad nauseum but that simply does not stack up. Economy is not simply about hard cash value, but also about the time diverted away from core activities.

    All of which I see and “get”, but the structural issues are the things that define and develop a “business” and the things that often take up leadership time.

    From the workload point of view, the driving force for conversion must be school governors and the headteacher. We are the ones tasked with signing the paperwork. We are being asked to redefine educational provision for future generations without any verifiable data from DfE that we can base decisions on.

    That there is no useful “Academy conversion toolkit” is a national disgrace. Rather, the DfE spits out generic, often out of date, documents (often running into hundreds of pages) that we are supposed to read, consider and use. Trust me, I have read most of them and they are wonderful examples of filling pages without actually saying anything useful.

    What all GBs need to know is:

    1. What will the funding be in Year 1 / 2 / 3 / 4
    2. Who finances ongoing building rennovations and repairs – who do we call when the brown stuff hits the fan? Currently we can call our LA and the same day they will have a team on site. As a business owner, I know that getting that level of service in the commercial sector is rare. If a school is midway through a LA funded renovation (because they need to do it in summer holidays and spread the budget over years) who picks up that tab?
    3. Where do the volunteer trustees and members come from?
    4. How do we deal with different schools running different internal systems – everything from IT to Assessments. Who sorts all that mess out?

    £25k per school only applies when you have 3 schools forming a MAT. After 3, it is £5k per extra school forming the MAT up to a maximum conversion grant of £100k.

    The whole Academy conversion process is back to front. You get little actual assistance from the DfE until you formally agree to convert. Yet how can responsible GBs agree to convert without knowing proposed structures, funding, liabilities, etc etc. As they say where I come from Ar** about T**.

    Nobody is surprised that forced academisation is happening, but knowing what I know now, and how ill prepared some schools are about the whole process, there is going to be a very painful time in education in the next few years. Headteachers reaching near retirement ages will drop out. Other teachers will be reticent to stepping up to leadership roles and school governors will leave in droves as they realise that the new regime is not what they signed up for. That, I think is the tragedy. You will lose good governors who had a vested interest in their schools, who have built up years of experience and knowledge, often coming from business or local government, being sidelined. If you are in a paid job, it is bad enough, but when you are giving up your free time (or not free time) to deal with politics many will say enough is enough.

    Speaking personally, I will stick this out. I think I owe it to the school and staff that educated my children – for free. Hopefully others will as well.