The government has announced it wants all schools to become academies by 2022. But what are they? Editor Laura McInerney looks at questions about the policy, and tries to answer them straightforwardly.
1. Aren’t academies run by private companies? Is this just privatisation of schools?
Not quite. We have to be careful with language here.
Academies are schools run by charitable trusts via a contract with the government. We call these charities ‘academy trusts’. The trusts are private, in that the state does not own them, but they cannot run schools for profit. And if the trust does a bad job of running the school it will have to give it back (the buildings, the land, everything).
So this is not a school sell-off. It’s more like lending schools to charities to run on our behalf for as long as the charity is capable of doing so.
2. Can academy trusts sell off school land and stick the cash in their coffers?
No. Academy trusts are given school buildings, and the land they sit on, purely so they can operate the school. As with any school, they can apply to make adaptations, or to give the site over to something else. For example, an academy in Oxfordshire with a large site allowed another school to be built on part of its land. But it can only do this sort of thing in liaison with central government. (And if it is thought it’s not complying its school leaders can end up in front of a parliamentary committee).
3. So how come the CEOs of academy trusts are being paid such high amounts?
This is a good point. We revealed just last week that the highest paid CEO received £400,000, and some others received increases of between £20-30,000.
There are no nationally-agreed maximum levels for CEO pay. As in the charitable sector, where leaders of major charities can earn substantial six figure sums, so can people who oversee academy trusts which may have upwards of 30 schools.
Is this value for money? Possibly. We want good people to manage schools, and it is true that current CEOs would get paid substantially more to work in private businesses, such as retail chains. But there is a sensible debate to be had about whether caps ought to be brought in.
4. If academies are ‘free’ from the national curriculum, does that mean the curriculum no longer exists?
In essence: yes. Academies are not “bound” by the national curriculum. But that doesn’t mean they won’t follow it. Ofsted, the schools inspectorate, requires all schools to follow a “broad and balanced” curriculum. Just because a school is an academy doesn’t mean they can teach English, maths and knitting, and all will be well. GCSE exams will also still be based on the national curriculum, so key stage 4 teachers will largely still focus on the same content.
This doesn’t mean all is well. At primary, tests are only in a few narrow subjects, and some subjects may get lopped off the end – for example, there is no real incentive for teaching art and drama in this system. But we need not get het up about the idea that suddenly everyone will teach wildly different things.
5. What will happen to local authorities?
It’s important to remember that local authorities haven’t “run” schools for a long time. Their role has been one of oversight and statutory responsibilities, such as organizing transport and special needs. Over the past six years, local authorities have had less and less money available for supporting schools and in several places, all schools have already converted to being academies.
Special needs is likely to stay with local authorities, and it seems as if they may get souped-up powers in other places. For example, they don’t currently have power over admissions of academies, but there are plans afoot to give them a role in this again.
Hence, while authorities will lose some aspects of what they do, especially school improvement, they will gain others.
6. Does becoming an academy improve standards in a school?
The answer every serious academic will give you is: we just don’t know. Evidence so far has been inconclusive, but the data we do have largely suggests it doesn’t really make a difference. Some academies do well, others do badly. As with local councils, some academy trusts are very good at running their schools, others are quite poor.
Basically, academies are not magical.
7. So why would changing to a fully academised system be any better for pupils?
That’s a good question. And one we can’t answer using data. What Nicky Morgan has long said is that she believes a system in which “school leaders” make their own decisions, without oversight from the local council, is better because those leaders are closer to the pupils and know how to make the best decisions for them. (Although the freedom from oversight is an illusion – see the point below).
8. Who is in charge of checking these charitable trusts aren’t cooking the books and doing badly by their pupils?
A raft of education people check on academies, as well as the Charities Commission.
Eight regional schools commissioners – who are senior civil servants – can check on academies at any time. They decide if trusts should be allowed to take-over new schools, or shed ones no longer working. Commissioners can also give out warning notices, and can close an academy trust if it is performing badly. (This hasn’t happened so far).
The Education Funding Agency – run by more civil servants – checks the accounts of academies each year, and keeps an eye on businesses owned by the people running the charities to see if they are buying services from themselves. Oddly, directors of charities are allowed to purchase from their own for-profit companies. This has been the source of much contention about the academies programme and it is quite odd.
Ofsted, the schools inspectorate, visits academies and writes reports about them the same as it does about other schools. If it notices patterns in one academy trust, it will run a ‘focused inspection’, where it writes to the academy trust about these patterns and says what it needs to do to improve.
As charities, all academy trusts also depend on the Charities Commission granting their charitable status. Should the trust behave in an uncharitable way, the commission could theoretically strip them of their status, which would mean losing the schools they operate. (Though, in practice, one academy trust referred to the commission so far has been waiting over a year for its investigation to complete).
Academies are therefore theoretically well-scrutinised. A problem is whether or not these organisations can cope with the workload and have adequate powers to enforce their will. So far, the evidence is that they are not always able to do so – and the lack of transparency around many of the decisions made by commissioners has made people particularly suspicious.
9. Will uniforms be more expensive?
When schools change into being academies their uniforms sometimes change. A past investigation of ours showed that schools typically bear the brunt of these costs. However, there is some evidence that academies have more expensive uniforms on average. This is one to watch.
10. What does it mean for pupils?
Honestly? Almost nothing. Academies are just schools, with a slightly different management structure. Almost everything about their day-to-day could be done in a school OR an academy.