Same name but a world of new potential
In the mid-1980s I wrote a newspaper article entitled "Give schools their own cheque books". It looked forward to the day when all state schools would be wholly in charge of their affairs and be free to spend their funds entirely according to the professional priorities of the staff instead of the whims of local and national politicians. I am still waiting for that day to dawn.
However, the coalition Government legislation currently going through Parliament gives me much cause for hope. Education Secretary Michael Gove hit the ground running in May when he immediately announced that all schools would be able to opt for "academy" status.
It is a shame that the designation "academy" was used, for this new Gove brand has only one or two (important) features in common with the group of 200 controversial schools that Labour created over the last decade and that were running, before last month's Budget, at a cost of about 38 schools per #163;1 billion.
In the light of critical research highlighted recently in The TES, I rather doubt that Labour's "academies" were value for money. I would have personally preferred to see those billions spread more evenly across the school stock than funnelled into a tiny number, of which only a few have apparently performed well so far. However, the first few dozen were given the privilege of an independence that is well worth having.
Nevertheless, the present Education Bill is very wise not to waste time attempting to reinvent the wheel; it simply amends and augments Labour's academy laws to provide new and important benefits that all schools can potentially acquire, not just an elite few.
What does Mr Gove mean by an "academy"? What are the differences from the previous regime? Well, first you do not require a millionaire backer with his own ideas about how your school should be run, or indeed any sponsors at all. Second, you will not receive #163;25 million for a rebuild but #163;25,000 to help you with legal and other fees to achieve the transition. Third, you do not have to change your school's name to include the word "academy" if you choose not to.
However, the professional freedoms that this new status will bring have been virtually unknown in the state sector of education for more than a decade, since, in fact, the abolition of grant-maintained (GM) schools in the late 1990s.
These GM schools, which comprised one fifth of state secondaries and some hundreds of primaries, had chosen, under the provisions of the 1988 Education Reform Act, to liberate themselves from the control of their local authorities. They did this by balloting the parents and if they said yes (three quarters did) the school: became an autonomous incorporated body; employed its staff; was passed the ownership of the freehold of its land; became its own admissions authority; and received its funding per pupil from a central source.
Each school received the money that would otherwise have stuck to the local council tube and was barred from having political appointees of any shade on its governing body.
By far, most of these schools were comprehensives, with about 60 grammars and primaries making up the rest. How did they fare?
As now, the local authority used to hold back about 10 per cent of funding from its schools, so those that went GM had more money to spend in their classrooms. Typically they used around 4 per cent to replicate those services that the local authority used to supply, buying from commercial or charitable providers - or even, if they thought it value for money, from their own or other authorities. The rest was theirs to use as they thought fit.
Also, because they could move funds at will among budget headings, it was entirely up to heads, senior management teams and governors to set their school's spending priorities.
I was privileged to be appointed by the then government to lead the evolution to grant-maintained status in the eight years that it was attainable. Our research demonstrated that, by all available educational measurements, these schools did better than their local authority counterparts. Surveys showed that parents' and teachers' satisfaction levels were extremely high and many school leaders have since said to me that these were the best years of their headships.
Mr Gove's new "academies" will have even more independence: all the above benefits together with freedom not to use the national curriculum and, if and when they are ranked as "outstanding", far fewer visits from Ofsted. Receiving their funding per capita from a source that will bypass local authorities, they will have more money to spend directly on teaching and learning. The plethora of central "initiatives", "projects", "strategies" and "partnerships" will pass them by, unless they wish to join them of their own volition.
The new Education Secretary is determined to return decision making to the professionals in charge of schools, and has pledged to remove all unnecessary form-filling and the pitiless bureaucracy that demands so much time - time which could be profitably spent on pupil-related activities.
Resultingly, more than 1,000 schools have indicated their interest and I prophesy that when these new freedoms are conspicuously in use, even more will do so. Schools - especially those that have charitable foundations still have, quite rightly, many questions about the detail. Answers will become apparent in the next few weeks as the bill becomes law and the regulations and guidance are written. This time, thank goodness, there is no ballot to organise.
As one head told me recently: "The extra money is good but the real reason why we are moving to new 'academy' status is that, at last, I, my staff and my governors will have the authority to match our many responsibilities".
It is my hope that, during the coming years, so many schools will take the same course so that a tipping point is reached and no future Government will dare again to take away this vital element in the real professionalism of teachers.
Sir Bob Balchin, Pro-chancellor of Brunel University, he also led the grant-maintained movement in the 1990s.