Should Schools Become Academies?

Headteachers claim forced academy status is unjustified

 

A worrying article was published in the Guardian on 7th May 2012 that highlights an increasing trend in schools being forced into converting to academy status against their will and unnecessarily. Under the Academy Act 2010 schools can be forced down this route if their exam results or Ofsted inspections show that they are failing. But the cases examined in the Guardian report do not fall under any of the categories that would warrant compulsory conversion.  Worse still a growing number of head teachers and school governors are reporting that threatening tactics are being used by DfE officials to scare them into changing the status of their schools.

Anna Jones (whose name has been changed) is a headteacher with a proven track record in school improvement having brought a school out of special measures. She was appointed to run a Birmingham primary school and tasked with repeating her achievements. Through solid management, extensive monitoring of teacher performance and pupils’ achievements and attainments the hard work is paying off. The school is out of special measures having been assessed as satisfactory after the last Ofsted visit and is oversubscribed in some year groups. Furthermore, pupil achievement and attainment is increasing rapidly and according to internal tracking of progress more than 60% of their 11 year olds will pass English and Maths SATs this summer.  The 60% figure is the new floor target for schools recently set by Ofsted.  According to Jones:

“This is a large school in an area of multiple deprivation.”

Jones also pays tribute to her deputies, who, she says, have:

“worked really hard to pull it up”. Now “we have quality and improved teaching and learning. We have very robust self-evaluation and our improvement plan is led by that”.

However, despite all these improvements she has been informed that her school will be forced into academy status if she and her governors do not vote to apply to become an academy as it will be evidence of “weak leadership”. Existing governors would be removed and a section 60 notice to improve issued, a new governing body put in place and a sponsor imposed.

Should Schools Become Academies?

The short answer to this is NO because there are several major concerns over the academies programme.

  1. Michael Gove appears to be confused about his own policies. Academies were introduced by the last Labour administration as an educational improvement tool to turn around failing schools. When Gove took office he opened up the option of conversion to academy status to outstanding schools. Subsequently, voluntary conversion was widened to other schools. Each school converting to academy status receives initial upfront funding per pupil. This money is removed from Local Authority funding for state maintained schools and public services and is expected to have cost £413 million between 2011 and 2013. However, there appears to have been an underestimate of the costs for 2012-13 so the figures for this year could be as high as £997 million.  That means vital services are being cut back in order to fund academies which in itself would be a cause for concern even if the academy programme was a coherent one. But the academy system was designed to improve failing schools and now hundreds of millions of pounds is being given to schools that don’t need to be converted to academy status.  So if the academy programme is aimed at educational improvement why is so much money being wasted on converting good and outstanding schools?
  2. Secondly, this policy flies in the face of the Government’s overall localism aspirations and the DfE’s claims that academies are providing more choice and control for parents. Academies have smaller proportions of local governors on their boards than maintained schools, are less accountable through the Freedom of Information Act not least in relation to their accounts and any appeals over issues with academies must be made through the DfE and its related Westminster based bodies rather than local authorities. Additionally, overall control of academies rests with the Education Secretary.
  3. Thirdly, as we can see in the case of Jenny Jones’ school the academy programme is now spreading to primary schools.  Many of the nearly 50% of secondary schools that have already converted  were motivated by the financial incentive but the vast majority of primary schools have decided that the academy system is not suitable for them and virtually none have converted. Now it seems that primary schools are being increasingly falsely downgraded in order to justify forcible conversion to academy status to speed up the spread of academies through the primary school sector. One concern is that the DfE is rushing to convert schools such as Jenny Jones’ into academy status by August in an effort to artificially inflate the success rates of academies. This is because the vastly improved SATs results will be credited to the conversion of her school to an academy; something, which the DfE strongly denies.
  4. Fourthly, there is no empirical evidence that academies produce better results than state maintained secondary schools. According to an National Audit Office Report in  2010 academies were a long way from matching the national average for the percentage of pupils achieving five or more A* – C grade GCSEs or equivalent particularly when English and Maths were included. They were however, assessed as making good progress against comparable maintained schools, both in absolute attainment and relative to prior attainment. Furthermore it was judged that the overall performance trend masked “wide variation between individual academies with some performing exceptionally well and others making little progress”. In addition, a report produced in February 2012 revealed that while 60% of pupils in non-academy schools attained five A* to C grade GCSEs last year, only 47% did so in the 249 sponsored academies.  As a result nearly a billion pounds is being taken out of hard hit public services during the next year in order to fund an education programme with a questionable success rate.
  5. Finally, much praise has been heaped upon Mossbourne Academy in London and its transformation under the now head of Ofsted Sir Michael Wilshaw.  It is proclaimed as a flagship for the academy programme. However, less publicity is given to the fact that Sir Michael turned around a previous secondary school in a similarly spectacular fashion without it becoming an academy thus proving that a whole host of factors are necessary for raising standards in a school but conversion to an academy is not one of them.  

In summary, we are forced to question why such heavy handed tactics are being employed by a Government minister and his representatives in order to forcibly convert unwilling schools into a system of schooling that is both educationally unnecessary and extremely costly to the taxpayer at a time of massive budget cutbacks and austerity measures.

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