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Academy conversion: seven steps to consider
Becoming an academy is a huge change for any school and so it is important that the process is well-thought-out. The Key’s John Davies outlines seven steps to help academisation run as smoothly and effectively as possible
Opting to become an academy is one of the most important decisions a school can make, so it’s essential that those considering taking their school on this journey know what to expect and how to get it right.
While the government is no longer forcing every school to convert, the general direction of travel hasn’t really changed – the Department for Education (DfE) remains in favour of schools becoming academies, particularly as part of a multi-academy trust (MAT).
Despite this, almost half of schools (44 per cent) in England feel there isn’t enough information available to support decisions on joining or forming a multi-academy trust (MAT), according to new findings in The Key’s latest annual State of Education report – soon to be released.
This comes at a time when the government has withdrawn the £384 million it had previously earmarked to fund the conversion process and schools are needing to find £3 billion in savings by 2020 to counteract cost pressures.
Against this backdrop, many schools may lack the resources to fully explore academy conversion.
So, if conversion is a step your school is thinking of taking, here are seven considerations, from The Key’s John Davies to help make the process run as smoothly and effectively as possible:
HAVE A CLEAR VISION
Different schools will have varying reasons as to why they convert, but you should have a clear vision as to what you want your school or MAT to look like after you make the change. How do you see the culture of the school changing? If forming a MAT, what will the trust’s values be? And how will schools in the MAT work together?
It might be tempting to become an academy because you feel that this is something every school will eventually have to do, but this line of thinking can prevent valuable consideration of the real pros and cons of conversion for your school.
Questions like those suggested above can be intimidating to think about when starting the conversion process, but it’s important to take time to carefully evaluate your direction of travel and feel in control of the change and all its implications for your school.
One MAT in south London, held an away day with the CEO, as well as the three headteachers of the schools forming the MAT and focused on considering academy conversion and working through these questions.
Asking an education consultant or local MAT leader to help lead the day
could also be helpful.
BE CLEAR ON LEVELS OF AUTONOMY
If converting to a standalone academy, the potential for greater autonomy in certain areas of school life may be one of your key motivations. Schools that are joining or forming a MAT, however, can often be concerned that they will lose autonomy.
Every MAT must have a scheme of delegation that sets out how it distributes decision-making and how much autonomy it gives to individual schools. If you are considering joining one, you should conduct due diligence on any potential MATs before you make your decision.
Ask to see the MAT’s scheme of delegation document, so you can be sure what responsibilities you will keep and which will be held at board level.
Equally, if you are forming a MAT with other schools, everyone must be clear on how delegation will work. Lack of clarity can create problems
later on, as schools can be surprised that they no longer have the power to make certain decisions which are now made by the board.
Creating a clear scheme of delegation for your MAT, which sets the responsibilities of the board, senior leaders, heads of school and local governing bodies, is essential.
You could look at examples from MATs for inspiration, but it’s important this reflects your own vision.
The DfE requires schools proposing to form a MAT to provide evidence of how the stronger schools in the trust will help the weaker schools to improve.
This is a fundamental aspect of how MATs work, so you need to have a robust plan. It may be that you want to share staff between schools, so that an outstanding maths teacher, for example, supports schools struggling in that subject. Alternatively, you may want to share arts or sports facilities.
Take time thinking this through as it should be a leading part of your vision.
One trust encourages subject leaders to consult and share ideas with their counterparts in the MAT’s other schools, thus deepening their own knowledge and skills.
RUN AN EFFECTIVE CONSULTATION
In carrying out such a big change, you need to make sure that the whole school community is involved. It’s better if people feel they are part of the change, rather than having change done to them.
A former director of governance at a large MAT, says you should aim to get staff “on board” with the decision, as they are most likely to be the people parents will ask about the process.
Schools are required to carry out a consultation process when considering applying to become an academy. It’s important to explain why the school wants to take this step, give all interested parties enough time to respond, take into consideration their views, and then report back on the school’s response.
Typically, schools will send out a ‘consultation pack’, which includes the school’s rationale for converting, an FAQs page and a list of questions for stakeholders to respond to. It’s a good idea to also hold evening meetings where parents can ask questions directly to senior leaders and governors.
Staff, parents and pupils will all have views to share, and you should make sure that decision makers are seen to, and do, listen.
CHOOSE SKILLED LAWYERS
Once your application is accepted and the conversion process begins, a lot of the legwork will be undertaken by your solicitors and your DfE project lead.
You need to be able to have faith in your legal support and work with them effectively. Ask three or four firms to pitch to you so your choice isn’t limited and you can be confident of securing good value for money.
When considering your options, think about each firm’s past experience in handling conversions, whether you ‘get on’ with them, and whether they are able to support you post-conversion. Some firms have dedicated education teams and specialise in conversion; you may also find it useful to talk to other schools that have been through the process.
You should aim to find out how much they estimate the conversion to cost, how their experience will help and how long the process will take.
TACKLE TRICKY ISSUES HEAD ON
Changing the legal status of your school is complex, but leaving the most headache-inducing issues to the last minute can derail the process. Don’t put off working out what will happen with your PFI contract or resolving confusing land ownership issues.
Equally, make sure you have clarity over whether you are continuing with all of the school’s contracts with suppliers after conversion.
Points like this can be tricky to navigate after conversion, or delay the conversion process itself, if not tackled head on. Getting this work done early will mean that after conversion you can hit the ground running.
FOCUS ON EDUCATION
It seems like an obvious point to make, but all of the work involved in becoming an academy or joining/forming a MAT can risk becoming a distraction from the core focus of delivering a high standard of education.
Keeping school improvement at the heart of all decision‑making throughout the conversion process, and in day-to-day school life while the process is happening, will help you ensure that school performance doesn’t drop at any stage.
Keep referring back to your school improvement plan and targets for attainment and progress, and don’t let the conversion process dominate all discussions with the senior leadership team and wider school community.
Delegating conversion‑related tasks evenly among those involved will also help to ensure that no one loses focus from their core role.
John Davies is a senior researcher and blog editor specialising in academy conversion at The Key, a company providing an information service for school leaders.Further Information: