We'd do well out of becoming an academy, but I refuse to desert the less fortunate

23rd July 2010 at 01:00
Headteacher Elliott Furneaux says a change in status would no doubt benefit his 'outstanding' school, but severing the relationship with his local authority would disadvantage others in his area - and it is the students who would lose out

We are an outstanding school, in the top 3 per cent nationally for student achievement. We therefore will be eligible to convert to academy status automatically under the new procedures.

However, we have absolutely no intention of applying, and not a single governor or member of staff has argued that we should.

Furthermore, I have made it clear to staff and governors that I would resign if the school was forced down this route. I am concerned that if schools take up the offer, their decision will cause an effective collapse of central local authority services. I could not implement a change with which I so fundamentally disagree.

We are not opposed to academies per se. Indeed, we have fully supported the opening of the new Taunton Academy in September even though we fish in the same pond and would be most "at risk" geographically if (as we hope) the academy takes off. We support it because it will give opportunities to pupils who come from some of the most deprived wards in the local authority.

Nor do we doubt, despite the arguments about the exact figures, that our overall budget would benefit significantly if we became an academy. After all, if this were not true, what would be the point of any school applying?

The question is, even if there is a significant advantage for us, what impact would our decision have on other schools in the authority which are in a weaker position? We faced a similar decision when we were offered a fully-fledged sixth form two years ago under the Department for Children Schools and Families' presumption arrangements. We turned it down, in full consultation with our partner secondaries and further education colleges, because of the damage it would have done to local, existing provision.

The plans appear fundamentally undemocratic. Education Secretary Michael Gove wrote to heads and encouraged them to express their interest not only before the legislation had been passed, but even before his ideas had been set out in the Queen's Speech.

One reason heads are still so confused about the small print is that the bill has not even reached the House of Commons, where the process of examining and debating detail is surely one of the cornerstones of our democratic process.

Barely a week passes without some educational group or other warning its members about the small print. Last week it was Catholic schools and grammar schools. If someone tries to sell you something with a financial inducement, no opportunity for proper consultation, no detail in the small print and no cooling-off period and then uses the age-old line that "It is of course up to you whether you want to buy or not, but everyone else is doing it and you don't want to miss out ..." you should always be wary of the product on offer.

As for the logistics, simple maths shows how flawed the thinking is. First, cost.

Let's presume the Government genuinely wants every school to become an academy eventually - although it is hard to imagine it handing #163;25,000 to every school to help them become more independent.

With more than 20,000 schools nationally, that would be #163;500 million of new money at a time when the Department for Education (DfE) is apparently facing cuts of between 15-25 per cent. And that does not include the massive additional costs of civil service salaries to implement the conversions, at a time when recruitment is supposed to have been frozen.

And nothing in the recent shenanigans over Building Schools for the Future gives confidence that the DfE has the capacity to cope with such a huge bureaucratic task, however much money is thrown at it.

Turning to the timescales, the figures become almost farcical. The DfE is still telling heads who inquire that all mainstream schools that wish to become academies will be processed within a year. And yet, as The TES revealed in its front page on June 11 ("Academies expansion in jeopardy") the impact study published alongside the bill calculated that, with cuts in civil-service staff and other logistical factors, the DfE will only be able to process about 200 schools annually.

Let's assume, for argument's sake, that this study is out by a factor of ten and the figure is 2,000 new academies per year. If all schools were to apply, it would take ten years, or two parliamentary terms, to reach those at the end of the food chain.

Meanwhile, with academies drawing off their 10 per cent share of the budget that hitherto paid for central services, inevitably causing local authorities to wither on the vine, what would happen to those schools and especially those vulnerable youngsters who most depend on those strong central services?

It is the intrinsic unfairness of the process which is the reason we will not be seeking academy status.

We also unashamedly believe in the values of the "club" - we believe that schools work best when they work together and support each other, when they bargain for services together and protect each other, most crucially when they feel a sense of responsibility to the needs of young people beyond the confines of their own catchment area.

History surely shows us that when "clubs" break up, it is the most vulnerable members who always suffer the worst.

And I'm afraid I simply don't buy the supposed "safeguards" on issues such as admissions. Having worked in five schools in inner London and now more rural Somerset for over 30 years, I have seen how difficult it can be to constrain a "rogue" head from seeking unfair advantage over schools they see as their "rivals", even within a local authority club.

A more "independent" school would find admissions policy easy to circumvent. Outstanding schools would not be held accountable by Ofsted, unless an inspection was requested by parents.

It is as if all of us in education are on a vast ocean liner facing extremely stormy waters. That was inevitable, whichever government was in power. At the point at which those in the strongest position - in our case, in terms of Ofsted ratings, parental preference and high-performing specialisms - should be battening down the hatches, securing the lifeboats and ensuring the most vulnerable passengers are protected, we are being invited to abandon our superior cabins, grab the best crew and provisions and take to the lifeboats.

That is something that, as a head and as a school, is in such direct opposition to our core principles that we could not do it. The only surprise and disappointment to me is that so many others who espouse those same values apparently can.

The inevitable outcome of this policy is that sooner or later the DfE will halt the academies programme because it cannot afford or cannot service more than a small minority of schools, most of which will be already successful ones in relatively comfortable catchments (see The TES front page on July 2, "Wealthy to dominate academies").

Inevitably, we will end up with a two or three-tier system. Whether this is the perceived intention or an unforeseen outcome of the policy will depend on your political perspective. Either way, many schools will become more disadvantaged - and it will be the students who attend them who suffer the most.

Elliott Furneaux is head of Healthfield Community School in Taunton, Somerset


In the guidance application, heads are advised to do three things:

1. Complete the online registration.

2. Convene a meeting of the governing body and pass a resolution in favour of academy conversion.

3. Notify the local authority and consider how to inform staff, pupils and parents of their intention to become an academy.

Where are the holy trinity of parents, pupils and staff in all this? The stated aims in every one of our schools focuses on the central partnership between these three key "stakeholders".

The Government has further promoted the key role that parents should play in schools via initiatives such as the Free Schools programme. Yet there is absolutely no need for the head nor the governing body to consult a single pupil, parent or member of staff before taking this decision although the conditions of service of all staff will be subject to change as a result of conversion to an academy. I'm amazed it is even legal.

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