Critics see them as socially divisive. And in a TES poll earlier this year, three out of four teachers said they would have reservations about working in one. But keep an open mind about academies, not least because they represent a growing job market. There are pitfalls to avoid, but the right job in the right academy could provide an exciting challenge at the start of your career.
What are academies like?
"The best academies are bubbling cauldrons of innovation, with empowered staff and enthused students," says Barry Fishwick, executive principal of the Manchester Creative and Media Academies. "Like schools on steroids!" Academies are free to adapt the national curriculum, so are particularly suited to creative teachers willing to take risks. Obviously you still have to cover the syllabus properly, but you will be encouraged to try out new ideas - even as an NQT. "Academies are about innovation and new teachers are valued because they bring a fresh approach," says John Murphy, director of education for Oasis Community Learning, which runs 12 academies.
Expansion of the academy programme is currently focused on persuading schools rated `outstanding' by Ofsted to convert to academy status, yet many of the `old' academies serve deprived communities and were once failing schools. They may have a new name, new leadership and some shiny new buildings - but they can still be tough places to work. "There's pressure to raise levels of attainment very quickly," says Mr Murphy. "The purpose of an academy is to transform the whole local community and new teachers need to be able to align themselves with that mission, that vision, because it can be a challenge."
Pay and conditions
Academies operate outside the control of the local authority and set their own levels of pay. In reality, most academy pay scales differ little from the national norms and usually only principals and vice-principals command supersized salaries. Look carefully at what is on offer. An academy may pay its NQTs above the going rate in the maintained sector, but without the same level of progression higher up the scale.
And it's not all about money. Some academies abide by the national `Burgundy Book' agreement with regard to working conditions, but many have their own contracts, which tend to be less favourable. Key paragraphs to note include sick pay, maternity leave and working hours. Some academies require staff to be available during the school holidays, while others put no upper limit on working hours. "You need to study the contract," says Andrew Morris, the NUT's pay and conditions' expert. "In return for a salary just a little above national scale, you may be giving away some fundamental rights and benefits."
On the plus side, teachers who work in an academy are still eligible for the Teachers' Pension Scheme and an NQT is entitled to the same kind of induction programme you'd get in a maintained school. Indeed, many academies pride themselves on their staff development, so you shouldn't miss out when it comes to CPD.
Applying for jobs
Academies don't use the local authority recruitment pool, so applications are made directly in response to a job advert. Look at the history of the school and the reasons it became an academy. In particular, find out about the academy sponsor, because it's usually the sponsor who determines the ethos of the academy. For example, an academy sponsored by a religious foundation may be very different to one sponsored by a business or university. "No two academies are the same," says Mr Murphy. "Arrange a visit before applying, to see whether it's the kind of place that suits you."
When you do visit, try not to be blinded by science labs and fancy IT suites. Many academies are either brand new or have been rebuilt, so the facilities are often impressive. "It's more important to ask yourself if you trust the leadership," says Mr Fishwick. "Do they impress you? Will they help you develop? Do you subscribe to their vision?"
To land a job in an academy you'll need to prove that you've grasped the needs of the students and the community. "I want teachers who can inspire the school and the community," says Mr Fishwick. "It's not about who has the best qualifications, it's about who can give the most to our children."