Seven years ago, academies did not exist. Yet the Government confidently predicts that within the next two years there will be 243 academies (about one in 10 secondary schools). It then plans to expand the scheme to at least 400 - more than three times the 130 open today.
The academies programme, which employs 10,000 teachers, is still surrounded by myth and misunderstanding. So much so that several local authorities have begun balloting parents on plans to replace existing schools with academies. The headlines focus on glossy architecture and credit-crunch busting salaries, but what is it really like for teachers on the ground?
Those at Bristol Brunel Academy, in the Kingswood area of the city, are not complaining. The squat, corporate-looking building, which opened last September, could not be further from its decrepit predecessor, Speedwell Technology College.
"The building definitely helps," says Pauline Purchase, assistant principal and director of post-16 education. "You can stand on the top balcony and see 80 per cent of the school. It's so open and airy, it lends itself to passive supervision." Pauline admits to being apprehensive before Speedwell became an academy. Notably, she was the only member of the senior management to stay. More than a third of teachers also left.
"We were told that academy status would solve all our problems and I didn't buy that. But to my great surprise, to a large extent, it has," she says.
Joe Doherty is completing his NQT year at Brunel. He did a school placement at a comprehensive school, and sees no marked difference between that and working in an academy. "I still get the full NQT package and feel well supported by the senior management team and learning mentors," he says.
Pauline finds it hard to put her finger on what exactly has made the difference, but finally puts it down to the new building and leadership: "The management style is light on rules and promotes freedom. We trust the pupils to respect their environment and they've responded fantastically to that."
Christelle Sambissa and Jess Greenland, both Year 11 pupils, attest that the new build and trusting culture has had a positive impact on pupil morale and determination to succeed.
"We used to be forced outside into the rain because teachers thought we'd vandalise Speedwell," says Jess. "Now teachers let us use the computers around the school when we want, and they let us take laptops home with us. They just seem more relaxed."
Speedwell had four headteachers in five years, and the new academy was in need of strong, stable leadership. It was Armando Di-Finizio's first headship. He and his senior management team have a clear vision, which he says the sponsor does not interfere with, although sponsors do have the power to appoint governors, oversee the curriculum and influence the ethos of the school.
Academy status has given Armando and his staff the confidence to try new things, he says. "It gives greater independence and flexibility. I'm accountable to the Department for Children, Schools and Families, but I can be autonomous as well."
Down the road at The City Academy, in Bristol, Ray Priest, principal, has a similar message. "I have to keep within certain boundaries, but in other ways I'm only accountable to my board," he says. "It cuts out all the layers of bureaucracy and red tape of the local authority. There's a can- do attitude. I wanted better vocational resources, so the academy bought a building across the road for Pounds 600,000. It also got us 22 acres of shared play area. That would never have happened under the local authority." Academies are outside local authority control, so they run their own budget, set pay and conditions for staff and, like independent schools, are not bound by the national curriculum.
The senior team at The City Academy, which opened in 2003, is on the top end of the pay scale and paid according to a performance-related bonus system. Teachers are also paid more than standard. Two-thirds of its 120 staff are on additional salaries, partly due to volunteering for Saturday andor holiday booster classes. A 10-week unit in the holidays pays Pounds 1,000; a Saturday morning commitment from 9am to 1pm is worth Pounds 100. It sounds admirable, but potentially exhausting.
"In a challenging school such as ours, teachers' energy levels have to be high," says Ray, who is one of just three original principals who is still in post of the 12 pathfinder academies opened five years ago.
"There is a real issue of burn-out. We do have teachers who do three years and then move on because they can't sustain that level of energy."
But hard work is needed to drive up standards. Under the Government's National Challenge scheme, schools have three years to improve results to a minimum of 30 per cent five A*-Cs including maths and English at GCSE. Fail, and they risk closure or being turned into an academy. But what happens to existing academies that fall below the benchmark? That bridge is yet to be crossed.
Despite excellent value added scores and academic improvements at The City Academy, it is still languishing behind government GCSE targets. This year, 25 per cent of pupils achieved five good grades including maths and English. "It is a pressure cooker," says Ray. "We've got to get over that 30 per cent hurdle. I've become very focused on outcomes."
Bill Watkins, head of programmes for academy networks at the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust, is sympathetic to the dilemma facing academies such as City, which are starting from low levels of achievement. He adds: "When looking at results, you've got to look at the academy's trajectory and value added scores. A significant transformation needs a lot of hard work."
The City Academy tries to counterbalance this hard work. It pays for social events, offers subsidised private healthcare, a weekly staff appreciation award, an onsite nursery and a visiting masseuse. It's also supporting 40 members of staff working towards a masters degree - offering the equivalent of two days a year for research based on improving class practice.
But not all teachers want to take on such high levels of stress, whatever the rewards. One teacher, Peter (not his real name), resigned when Ducie High School became Manchester Academy in 2003. He asks: "Why was the school built for Pounds 6 million, only to be knocked down five years later so a new academy could be built round the corner for Pounds 23 million?" Peter and his colleagues wanted that money to be invested in the old school - for smaller classes and more special needs provision, but it fell on deaf ears.
John Bangs from the National Union of Teachers argues that the kind of resources and leadership academies boast, should be achievable in local authority schools.
"The academy programme is based on a fundamental fallacy that removing schools from the local authority will in itself raise standards," he says. "International evidence shows again and again that successful schools need good leadership, stable staff, quality professional development, external support and good relationships with other local schools - all of which can be achieved by community and voluntary aided schools."
"After all the hype, academies have not done better or worse than other schools. It's been a hugely wasteful experiment, both in terms of time and resources."
Aisha, 27, had no philosophical grudges about academies. She was more interested in whether it would be a fulfilling place to work. She taught for three months at a London academy as part of her long placement during her PGCE year. "Money was no object," she says. "You could photocopy as much as you wanted and get any resources you requested. In my short placement at a comprehensive, some pupils had to share their English set texts, but every child had their own books at the academy."
But Aisha still felt she did not fit in, and chose not to apply for a job there. "It was almost too new to embed tried and tested measures and structures. A lot of the staff were young and moved quickly through the ranks, arguably before they were ready."
That willingness to promote young talent attracted Andy Fogg to the John Madejski Academy, a sports college in Reading that opened two years ago. Having been a teacher on the Fast Track graduate recruitment scheme, the 29-year-old is already in his second year as director of sport.
Catherine Shaw, the principal, began her leadership by monitoring and reviewing teaching and learning across the whole academy. It has resulted in frequent formal observations and plenty of internal development opportunities to ensure and promote quality across the board.
"We have an open door policy and learn from each other," Andy says. "It keeps teachers on their toes and drives standards up. The staffroom is like a ghost town because all the teachers are encouraged to talk or eat with the pupils, building relationships with them. I've never worked so hard in my life, but I've never enjoyed a job so much either. It's a fast- paced, hardworking ethos, but it's a rewarding and vibrant place to work."
Q: Do academies recognise the teaching unions?
A: Academy Trusts are subject to the same employment laws as any other employer. If they do not voluntarily recognise a union, union recognition may still be achieved through a statutory process. Almost all academies recognise some kind of staff association for bargaining purposes, though it is not necessarily the union.
Q: Do chains of academies sometimes receive in-house inspections rather than HMI?
A: Ofsted inspections of academies are carried out on the same basis as all other state-funded schools.
Q: Do academies have their own admissions system?
A: No. Academies are required by law to cater for children of all abilities.
Q: Can teachers at academies get sacked for telling other staff what they earn?
Source: Department for Children, Schools and Families
For more information visit www.standards.dfes.gov.ukacademies
Working for an academy
Teachers' pay and conditions are protected when their existing school or schools are replaced by an academy. However, the sponsor is entitled to set their own pay, conditions and working time arrangements for newly- appointed teachers, including those joining a new institution. These may be the same or similar to other local state schools or they could be different.
First, establish whether the academy follows the School Teachers' Pay and Conditions Document (STPCD) and the Burgundy Book national agreement on conditions of service. If it is does not:
- Find out what teachers' pay structure and levels are. For example, will it adhere to the national teachers' pay increase each year?
- Find out what hours teachers are expected to work. Will you be required to work more than 1,256 teaching hours a year, or more than 195 working days a year (of which only 190 are teaching days)?
- In terms of cover, will it match the STPCD limit of 38 hours cover per year and will the daily 10 per cent planning, preparation and assessment time be protected?
- Will teachers be expected to work at weekends, during the holidays or after school?
- Ask about the academy's sick pay, maternity pay, notice periods, disciplinary and grievance procedures.
Source: Adapted from guidance from the National Union of Teachers.