Why is academy conversion suddenly so attractive again?

There are now 608 schools using the voluntary converter route to move out of local authority control

There are now 608 schools using the voluntary converter route to move out of local authority control

1 Dec 2023, 12:00

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Scaled-back council support services, financial woes and headteachers’ fears that they could be forced into a trust they don’t want to join are some of the main drivers behind a spike in schools wanting to convert into an academy.

Speaking at the Westminster Education Forum earlier this month, Hannah Woodhouse, the regional director for the south west, said the Department for Education has seen “the biggest interest [in conversion] since 2018”.

She didn’t mention figures. But Schools Week analysis reveals there are now 608 schools using the voluntary converter route to move out of local authority control.

The figure is almost double that recorded this time last year (373) and is the highest since 2018 (732).

‘Financial fragility’

Woodhouse said one of the reasons for the rise was “a lot of financial fragility and questions around the viability of small primaries”.

Schools Week analysed regional director advisory board minutes since September to get an idea why schools were choosing to convert. All conversions must be approved by regional directors, and many include brief details of why.

Almost a fifth (18.8 per cent) cited money and “stability” concerns.

Currently, 500 primaries are listed on the government’s “converter pipeline”,  their budgets badly hit as they struggle to fill reception classrooms in the wake of a birth-rate dip of 13 per cent since 2015.

Advisory board minutes show two village schools in North Yorkshire, Wykeham and Hackness C of E primaries, saying their conversion would give them “additional financial stability and security”.

The schools, which share a federated budget and are rated ‘requires improvement’, also recognised “the need for additional support from a MAT to accelerate improvement”.

In Brighton, Benfield and Hangleton Primaries launched a bid to join EKO Trust earlier this term, saying falling rolls on the coast meant “the capacity to maintain and develop staff is reducing as the schools shrink”.

New ‘coasting’ powers

Since September, “coasting powers” have allowed regional directors to academise schools with two or more consecutive Ofsted inspections that were less than ‘good’. 

Rob Tarn, the chief executive of the Northern Education Trust, said that some that fell within the scope for intervention have decided to jump before being pushed.

Hannah Woodhouse
Hannah Woodhouse

Tarn, who also sits on the North-east advisory board, said Hetton Academy in. Sunderland decided to join his trust last year – before the coasting powers were introduced – after receiving its second ‘requires improvement’ in a row.

“The governors felt ‘if we’re forced to academise, we won’t be able to choose who we join, so we might as well do it while it’s in our gift to decide’,” he said.

Our analysis found the most common factor for voluntary conversions (37 per cent) was relating to school’s values aligning with those of the trust, or that it was joining a family of similar academies.

Woodhouse added trusts were “making a case that it is in the interest of schools to join, certainly for staff development and outcomes for children”.

Lack of council support

Sector leaders have also argued that reduced local authority support has pushed many into the arms of MATs.

Our analysis of advisory board minutes found 34 per cent of schools wanted to academise because they were either already working with a MAT or wanted more support.

Simon Kidwell, the president of the National Association of Headteachers, said council funding had been cut significantly “so they don’t have the funds to do some of the core activities around school improvement that they used to have”.

Kidwell, the principal of the council-run primary Hartford Manor in Cheshire, said his school forked out almost £2,500 for school improvement support from the local authority last year.

Bryn Thomas, the head of Wolverley C of E Secondary in Worcestershire, said councils had reached a “critical mass”.

He either sourced specialist school improvement support from his network of colleagues or bought it in from trusts. He admitted he was “interested in what options are available to us in terms of academisation”.

Councils ‘don’t have the people’

“[Local authorities] just don’t have the people anymore. The only way to get that support guaranteed is through the academy system.”

The Collective Learning Partnership, which has six primaries in Bury, told parents it felt it needed to academise partly because of the authority’s “diminishing” services and provision.

In Staffordshire, Dove Bank Primary is set to join The Learning Partnership, which has 14 schools, in January.

Sally Dakin, Dove Bank’s head, said when she first took on headship, she asked the council to “quality assure my initial evaluation of standards, but it had limited capacity to do this and instead encouraged me to explore joining a trust.

“We don’t officially join until January, but already our access to expert teachers and leaders has generated rapid improvement – for instance, thanks to high-quality support and CPD, we now have a better EYFS environment, curriculum and quality of teaching.”

Schools now pay for LA help

Shrinking local authority support has prompted a number of primaries to band together to launch trusts.

In consultation documents sent to parents, the 13 schools looking to launch The Leaf Trust in South Gloucestershire noted the council “is significantly reduced in its capacity”.

Dan Thomas, the chief executive of The Learning Partnership, said schools “simply can’t access this much tailored support through [councils] or on their own, so it makes sense to join a trust which makes this possible”.

This comes after the £50 million-a-year government grant for council school improvement activities was scrapped this year. Authorities are expected to top-slice school budgets instead to fund such work.

The Local Government Association (LGA) said the cuts have prompted authorities to “move to a traded services model and ask schools to buy in support that was previously delivered free”.

Despite this, analysis of figures obtained through Freedom of Information shows school central team numbers dropped in just nine of 31 councils between 2019 and 2023 – with large increases in many.

The LGA said this could be because “the traded services are proving popular” or as a result of “new duties…around attendance that have required bigger teams”.

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