Academies: an issue that's not clear cut

2nd July 2010 at 01:00
Cover Story: The new government claims there will be hundreds of new academies by September. Should you be one of them? Hannah Frankel reports

It is a spectacular fall from grace by anyone's standards. In 2006, it was found to be an "outstanding college where all students are able to achieve the success they deserve".

Fast forward to the next inspection and it is a very different story. This time around, it "failed to give its pupils an acceptable standard of education", according to Ofsted. Without further ado the school was placed in special measures.

So what had changed to affect the verdict so drastically between inspections? The same leadership team was in place, the pupil intake had not changed. There was one tangible difference, however: the school had become an academy.

It is not just a bitter blow for Shireland Collegiate Academy in Smethwick, West Midlands. Ofsted's judgment has cast fresh doubts over the Government's attempt to roll out a major expansion of the academies programme.

Yet as one academy plummets down the ratings, another one goes up. When Frank Green arrived as its second principal in 1997, he says Leigh City Technology College in Dartford, Kent, was a "seriously failing school". The previous year, just 26 per cent of pupils achieved five good GCSEs.

In 2007, it became an academy. Last year, 95 per cent achieved five A*-Cs and Ofsted judged the once under-performing school to be outstanding. "We only get 11-plus failures, yet we are flourishing," says Mr Green. "Becoming an academy has been a phenomenally transformative process. It is not an absolute necessity in the route to success, but it does breed an independence of spirit and mind for headteachers. It lends you a resolve and determination to achieve things without relying on other people."

Despite the reversal of fortunes at Shireland, executive principal Sir Mark Grundy does not regret pursuing academy status. He claims Ofsted's verdict does not reflect the school's achievements, and denies that academy status played a part in turning outstanding into special measures. In fact, he says it has had the opposite effect.

"It has had a hugely positive impact," he says. "The wealth of experience our sponsor (the Ormiston Trust, a children's charity) brings alone has made it worthwhile. Having the freedom to innovate has been fantastic."

But despite his protestations, the Ofsted report is an embarrassment to Education Secretary Michael Gove, who has made an expansion of the academies programme one of his flagship policies. One of his first acts on taking office was to write to all heads of outstanding schools to offer them the autonomy that comes with academy status.

"The last government denied teachers and headteachers the powers they need," he said during the Queen's Speech debate last month. "This Government will ensure all who do want them can receive them."

In this first wave, outstanding schools will be pre-approved to become academies. Outside local authority control and free of national curriculum restrictions, academies will be able to set their own pay and conditions for staff or change the length of the school day. The Government had anticipated that the number of academies would triple - to 600 - by the beginning of the next academic year, although The TES revealed last month that a maximum of just 200 academies would be created this year, with another 200 in each of the following three years.

This leaves just two months for schools to switch to academy status by September, but Mr Gove says he has been encouraged by the level of enthusiasm to make the change. The Government claims more than 1,000 schools have expressed an interest in becoming academies. "The response has been overwhelming," he said, just a week after his letter went out.

But opening as an academy in September will be a tall order for many schools. "It would be tight and tough to open this September, but it is doable," believes Geoffrey Davies, a lawyer with Lewis Silkin, who has been involved in establishing about 60 academies. While the process used to take two years, it has now been streamlined and normally takes about six months, he says.

One head who is keen to take up the Government's offer is Mike Welsh of Goddard Park Community Primary in Swindon - an outstanding school where 38 per cent of pupils are on free school meals.

One of the main incentives is the extra money academy status could release for the school. Mr Welsh believes the local authority holds back about 10 per cent of the school's budget, worth approximately pound;130,000 per year. As the head of an academy free from local authority control, Mr Walsh would be able to put that money towards two new classrooms. He says it would also leave him free to pick and choose which local authority-provided services he wanted to buy, and which he didn't. For example, instead of using the local authority's education welfare service, for instance, Mr Welsh could extend the role of existing teaching assistants to act as family support officers.

"I'm sure they would rather be knocking on doors rather than writing letters, which would be an improvement," he says. "It's about having the freedom to flourish, while choosing what does and doesn't work. Some services we would probably buy back from the local authority - such as its excellent governor support unit - and some we wouldn't."

The Government may think that restricting the first wave to outstanding schools provides some guarantee that the programme will not be a high- profile flop. But the fate of Shireland Collegiate Academy is a timely reminder that academy status is no guarantee of success, says Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers.

It is a "fallacy" that "divorcing" a school from its local authority and community of schools will lead to improvements, she says. "It will be shown to be one at great cost over the next few years."

Shireland is not the only academy to have run into trouble. Of the 203 established academies, five have failed inspections. The United Learning Trust (ULT), the country's largest sponsor of academies, has seen three of its 17 schools branded inadequate by Ofsted in the past year.

One, Waltheof School in Sheffield, a school said to be making "reasonable progress" by Ofsted, was replaced by Sheffield Park Academy, which last year was graded "inadequate". In the most well-documented failure, the Richard Rose Central Academy in Carlisle, sponsored by the Richard Rose Federation, ran into problems shortly after it opened in September 2008. Peter Noble, a former NHS manager, left his role as chief executive of the federation running the school. A new management team has since moved in and the academy has stabilised.

The problems of some of these academies seem to have stemmed from the very virtue the Government is keen to encourage - their independence, according to Chris Keates, general secretary of the NASUWT. She says the difficulties at Richard Rose were the result of senior managers being so busy making changes to pay and conditions that they took their eyes off pupils.

At the Crest Boys' Academy in Neasden, London, teachers went on strike after the school proposed to make seven staff redundant. The job losses became a particularly bitter pill to swallow when it emerged that the director general of the academy's sponsor, Sir Bruce Liddington, was on a salary of pound;265,000 a year.

But Paul Luxmoore, executive head of Dane Court Grammar School and King Ethelbert School both in Kent, is undeterred. Academy status would be, he says, "manna from heaven" for him.

He says Kent County Council retains 8.6 per cent of each school's direct grant, which equates to about pound;200,000 per school, although he is awaiting confirmation on the exact figure. Both schools are being rebuilt as part of the Building Schools for the Future programme, which itself is now under review, and the extra money could go towards the hefty pound;320,000 annual bill for the managed ICT services for the two schools.

"We have saved our devolved capital to pay for this service for the next two years, but beyond that I don't know how I will pay for it without making cuts to the curriculum in each school," Mr Luxmoore says. "Each school is already in the process of making redundancies and in the case of King Ethelbert this is as a result of our National Challenge grant being slashed."

His job now is to reassure staff that the move would not threaten their pay and conditions. Academy status could be one solution, but he admits he knows little about the offer yet. Although he says the September timetable is likely to be too tight, it could be an option for the future. "I'm very interested in the offer for as soon as possible thereafter," he says.

But John Bangs, head of education at the NUT, is sceptical of the size of the academy windfall. He believes academies could stand to get an extra pound;25,000 to pound;200,000 - depending on size - from cutting out the local authority middleman. He believes this financial gain pales beside the loss of local authority support.

"With no specialist knowledge or guidance from the local authority, schools will be left swinging in the wind," he says. "You can't put a price on having a supportive conversation or sharing information with your local adviser or other schools within the local authority family."

And academy status is not always the answer to a headteacher's prayers, says Alasdair Smith, national secretary of the Anti Academies Alliance.

He says the evidence shows academies do no better than state-maintained schools. While the overall figures are skewed by the fact that the initial academies programme was concentrated in deprived areas, of the 74 academies that have entered their pupils for GCSEs for two or more years, 32 per cent have seen their results fall. Fifty nine per cent remain National Challenge schools, where fewer than 30 per cent of pupils achieve five A-C grades including English and maths at GCSE.

"There never was a magic academies bullet guaranteeing success," Mr Smith says. "It is standards not structures that change things. Improving teaching and learning is the bottom line, whatever you call the school."

Headteachers wanting to pursue academy status could also find opposition from their teaching staff. A recent YouGov survey found that 47 per cent of teachers think that academies have had a negative impact on staff development, while just 9 per cent thought this effect was positive.

But the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust (SSAT) disputes the claim that academies do no better than schools within the local authority framework. "Existing academies have been shown to have a real impact on standards, with exam results improving at twice the national average," says Elizabeth Reid, SSAT chief executive.

Having tasted academy freedom, Cathy August is adamant she would not go back. As principal of Manchester Academy, she says her experience has been unremittingly positive. The school's previous incarnation, Ducie High, was labelled with a poor reputation, including the worst truancy rate in the country. Since its conversion to an academy in 2003, it has been rated outstanding by Ofsted.

"Academy status gives heads the opportunity to really put into practice school improvement without being compromised by other people's agendas," says Mrs August. "I wouldn't be able to go back to a maintained school, where the advice from the local authority is so variable. With an academy, there is intelligent accountability. There is scrutiny and questioning, but if things are improving you are given the freedom to keep going."

But Chris Keates says academies can create a climate of nervousness and fear among staff, unhappy with changes imposed on them. "We've heard of staff coming under pressure to sign new contracts, plus gagging clauses in the contract that prevent them from discussing the details with anyone," she says.

"They may be stripped of their roles and responsibilities, coerced into working longer days, working more days in the year or working on Saturdays. There's one example where even the school holidays were at the discretion of the head."

She also casts doubt on the financial windfall headteachers can expect if schools convert to academies. Every service that needs to be bought in by academies on the open market will have to come out of their budgets, while local authority provision can benefit from economies of scale.

"Heads believe they will be sleepwalking into pots of money when they become academies," she says. "In fact, local authorities generally only keep back about 5 to 6 per cent of the central funding per school."

There are still so many questions left hanging, it is hard to make an informed decision, says Geoff Barton, head of King Edward VI School in Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk. He says he has yet to make up his mind on the merits of becoming an academy, with the potential loss of being part of a "family" of local authority schools one of the chief disincentives.

"We are not convinced by the whole enterprise, partly because we haven't seen the small print," he says. "Working in partnership with other schools is really important to us, and we would want to be reassured that partnership is at the heart of the proposal. While lots of us are attracted to the idea of gaining more autonomy and independence, it would be a shame if the main motivation for academy status was money and that this led to schools working in greater competitive isolation."

But Mr Welsh at Goddard Park sees no reason why an academy would not be able to continue to work with its local cluster of schools. "You can do that without the local authority facilitating it," he says. "Local authorities are changing beasts. We would still abide by the same admissions, exclusion and special needs rules as everyone else, we will just be able to drive teaching and learning in the way we think is best."

And if schools leave the local authority group, there is another family waiting to welcome them, says Mrs Reid. "Schools can benefit from becoming members of the SSAT's academy network, which will use its experience to support schools as they embark on this new status," she says.

Pank Patel, headteacher of Wood Green High School in Wednesbury, West Midlands, believes the education landscape is already so fragmented, it no longer makes sense for schools to remain under local authority control.

His own local authority, Sandwell, has six academies and six National Challenge schools. "The number of schools still paying for local authority services is diminishing and costs are increasing for those schools still in the local authority family," says Mr Patel. "We have seen personnel service costs double this year."

Instead of paying for services he does not need or want, Mr Patel says the extra money from academy status would enable him to reward staff as he sees fit - something he is unable to do under national pay and conditions agreements. "We have tried to foster talented staff but seem to be held back by the lack of flexibility," he adds.

He says staff voted to cover for colleagues and be paid for doing so, saving the school about pound;60,000 a year. But the national pay and conditions agreement states that staff should "rarely cover", and knocked the proposal on the head, a situation that would not arise if the school was an academy. "Academies are permitted to pay staff based on the value and talent that they provide," he says.

Changes to pay and conditions are just part of the transforming effect that an expansion of the academies programme on the scale envisioned by the Government would have, argues Geoffrey Davies of Lewis Silkin. "It is fundamentally revolutionary. It goes to the very core of education provision in this country."

He believes fears of a negative impact on teachers are overplayed. The transfer of undertakings regulations (TUPE) make it unlawful to change existing contracts when a school changes to an academy. Of course, management could introduce changes once the transfer is complete, but it would need to be totally divorced from the transfer process. Mr Davies recommends that schools wait at least three to five years before introducing changes, and even then, only with complete agreement from the staff.

But for all the interest from heads, it is governors who will make the final decision on whether a school will pursue academy status. Governors' backs have already been put out by Mr Gove's decision to send his invitation to headteachers. "We were not impressed," says Emma Knights, chief executive of the National Governors' Association. "It's a very quick way to upset the decision-makers, who already feel their role is not properly acknowledged."

She recommends that schools do not rush into making a decision and discuss the move thoroughly with all interested parties, including staff and the local community. Although she is not opposed to the academies programme, she does have reservations.

Like the teaching unions, she is not convinced a cash bonanza will materialise, especially in these days of greater financial austerity. Neither does she recognise the vast majority of local authorities as dictatorial bodies that withhold freedoms.

"If there is a fire at the school, who is it who will roll up their sleeves and help out?" she asks. "I expect your local adviser is more likely to show up the following morning than someone from Whitehall. This idea of going it alone is concerning a lot of our members. They feel supported by the local authority, not restricted by it."

She also points out that outstanding schools, by definition, have clearly done rather well out of the existing system. Perhaps they can do even better when given greater autonomy. Or perhaps, with that greater level of independence, there is only one way to go: down.

The existing academies demonstrate that their new status neither guarantees nor mitigates success. Previously successful heads will be under pressure if they are to remain beacons of best practice. As Sir Mark Grundy at Shireland Academy can confirm, going from outstanding hero to special measures zero is no laughing matter.


- All schools have been offered academy status, but only outstanding schools are automatically pre-approved. No sponsor will be required.

- More than 1,100 schools have registered an interest so far.

- A maximum of 200 are expected to open this September, with a further 600 opening before 2014.

- The move would free schools from local authority control and national pay and conditions for staff.

- The decision lies with the governing body. There is no statutory requirement to consult parents or pupils.

- Existing staff will transfer across to the academy under the same employment terms and conditions (with the possible exception of the pension scheme for non-teaching staff). Once it has been open for some time, the academy trust may wish to introduce changes.

- The estimated cost of the academies expansion programme is pound;530 million.

- A flat-rate grant of pound;25,000 will be available as a contribution to the conversion costs for each school.



May 26: Academies Bill introduced by Michael Gove and an invitation sent out to all schools.

June: Bill passes through the House of Lords.

July: Bill will pass through the House of Commons, before receiving Royal Assent.

July: Schools that have registered an interest will have to submit an "intention to convert" form and confirmation from the governing body.

July to August: Schools will need to complete legal documents relating to governance, land transfer and company registration.

August: Schools will have to set up new financial systems and contractual arrangements, including the necessary CRB checks.

September 6: Reopen as an academy.

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