Schools eye up Tory offer of greater independence

21st May 2010 at 01:00
Can the Tories make their election promises a reality?

It may have taken politicians almost a week to sort themselves out after the general election - but a comprehensive in Bath was considerably quicker to grasp the new political dawn.

Within 24 hours of David Cameron becoming Prime Minister, governors at Oldfield School had reached a unanimous decision to go for academy status, a key offer made to all "outstanding" schools by the Conservatives.

It is believed that the school is the first in the country to decide to become an academy following the formation of the Con-Lib coalition Government.

As revealed in a TES poll during the election campaign, it is expected that significant numbers of "outstanding" schools will take up the offer, with the first due to make the switch in September.

This will include primary and special schools, as well as secondaries, widening the scope of the academies programme.

The policy is opposed by classroom unions, which have argued that it will fragment the state system.

But Kim Sparling, head of Oldfield, said that it was a "natural next step" for her school, which has taken previous opportunities to gain more independence by becoming grant-maintained and then a foundation school.

"Clearly we enjoy having more autonomy," she said. "We discussed it as a governing body and with the staff and everyone was in favour of taking the opportunity.

"If you are within the local authority, you are subject to its guidance and interference.

"As an academy we will have freedom with the curriculum and the exams we want to use. We will be able to innovate as we see fit."

By becoming an academy, Oldfield - an all-girls institution up to the age of 16 with a mixed sixth form - will be exempt from a proposed school reorganisation in north-east Somerset, securing its long-term future.

One of the conditions attached to academy status will be helping a less successful school to improve.

Ms Sparling is a national leader of education, working with a number of other schools. She will continue with that work, rather than Oldfield partnering one other school.

"I'm very happy with the condition of helping other schools. If we want to take on these greater freedoms, there should be something expected in return," she said.

"The Department for Children, Schools and Families was forever telling us what to do. As the head of an outstanding school, I always took it with a pinch of salt, but it's difficult for schools that are not doing as well as they feel under such greater scrutiny."

Schools opting for academy status are also set to benefit financially, Ms Sparling said.

At present, local authorities typically keep between 10 and 15 per cent of a school's budget, which is then used to provide a range of support services. In Oldfield's case, 10 per cent of its budget is around pound;400,000 a year.

"There is no way that the authority provides pound;400,000 worth of services, and it would admit that," said Ms Sparling. As a successful school, part of its budget is reallocated to lower-performing schools, she said.

By becoming an academy, the school would get its full budget and be able to buy in services more cheaply, Ms Sparling said.

"All areas of public finance will be under scrutiny, so getting more funding will be fantastic."

Original paper headline: Cry freedom: schools eye up Tory offer of greater independence

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