The freedom brought by becoming an academy is attractive and converting can help improve attainment and bring many other advantages.
However, these advantages don’t stop heads and governors having questions and concerns about what it will mean for their school. The benefits include freedom from local authority (LA) control; the ability to disapply the national curriculum, and a greater ability to innovate, together with greater control over resources.
But with freedom comes responsibility and there is also an expectation that academies will be system leaders and an increasing number of academies play an active role in raising standards in their area. Heads considering the benefits of conversion can find it helpful to consider what each of these issues can mean for them.
Freedom from LA control One of the clearest summaries of the benefits of academy status came from the Academies Commission, which was set up by the Royal Society of Arts and the Pearson Think Tank, to examine the long‑term effects converting to academy status.
The report said: “The reality is that the increased freedoms are not nearly as substantial as is often suggested, but many school leaders feel a general sense of liberation with academy status: it provides a sense of ‘grown up’ responsibility and agency, and ‘permission’ to innovate.”
Individual academies also describe this freedom in similar ways. Harry Ziman, chair of governors at Kelsall Primary School, in Cheshire, summed up the benefits by saying that: “Academy conversion is the best thing that has ever happened to this school.”
A culture of autonomy pervades the academy and is instrumental to its success. Kelsall has developed rapidly including having now established a Multi-Academy Trust and Harry describes the current challenge as “to go beyond Outstanding.” Academy status is essential to achieving this aim but he feels the academy must be getting it right, as results are even better than before.
Better networks Being able to take part in new proactive networks can also be a major advantage of conversion. The best academies are anything but isolationist. Many are building wider federations, establishing teaching school alliances or opening up free schools.
In Bradford, maintained, foundation and academy schools together have formed an independent company to replace the LA’s school improvement service. With the support of the LA but with its monopoly broken, headteachers have at last truly embraced their collective responsibility for the education of all students.
As a result, in the first eighteen months the number of local secondary schools graded Good or better by Ofsted had doubled.
National networks are also important. Nick Weller, the outgoing chair of the IAA and executive principal of Dixons Academies says many principal appreciate the benefits of a strong support network. “For me, it is the Independent Academies Association” says Nick.
“The IAA is the only membership organisation solely dedicated to supporting academy and free school leaders and attracting increasing numbers of like-minded converters, primary, special and free schools.
“It is my way of meeting people who are doing things differently and who challenge my thinking.”
There are also a whole series of very practical management benefits for school leaders, as they continue to raise attainment in a tight financial climate.
Freedom to choose suppliers For many heads, being able to choose suppliers is a significant benefit, through agreeing contracts or what conditions of service to enter into, so that these best fit the needs of their pupils. The process of being able to choose suppliers also helps them consider whether an in-house solution best fits their needs, something which isn’t always possible with LA control.
Recruitment and Employment The freedoms offered in recruitment and employment can also be important and conversion can be an opportunity to change long standing systems. Being able to set job descriptions and rates of pay can help school leaders and heads of department respond to changes in the sector or in their subject or department. This flexibility can really help them make roles more attractive and better suited to individual members of staff, instead of pay and job descriptions having to be consistent for all employees of the local authority.
For example, Dixons Allerton Academy devised a totally new staffing structure from scratch. Where jobs in the predecessor school matched less than 80 per cent to the new ones, existing post-holders were interviewed first but were not obliged to appoint them to those roles and the academy was able to make choices, especially in key areas like senior, subject and pastoral leadership.
David Young Community Academy has innovated by having one pay spine for all staff, which has simplified human resources and helped improve staff motivation.
In addition, instead of giving teaching and learning responsibility payments, staff are able to gain responsibility points depending on the nature of their role and the extra responsibilities they have which are reviewed annually. It is possible to gain up to an extra eight responsibility points and £1,000 is awarded for each responsibility point. Staff can retain points at the end of the year, gain more or have them reduced dependant on academy need and performance.
People in mid leadership have the opportunity to have a range of responsibilities, which helps them gain extra experience as they apply for leadership posts. Academy principal, Ros McMullen said:“This is a package of policies which is really beneficial to staff and the school.”
Improving governance Conversion can help prompt a conversation about streamlining governing bodies and making them smaller, more professional and ultimately more effective. Many academies have governing bodies of ten or fewer and governors are expected to have professional expertise including in the key areas of legal, financial and human resources.
In the early sponsored academies, this was all very easy: the preceding governing body was simply replaced. For converter academies, this can be more difficult to achieve, and it will be for an effective chair to drive this review: the principal and the business manager will need to support this process, but ultimately it is not within their remit, nor should it be.
Where relevant, the choice of sponsor is also key. The IAA recommends avoiding those whose central costs are high. A national spread without a local hub is also best avoided: there is no point in escaping LA control and ending up with something just as expensive with no local knowledge or commitment. Above all, it is important to choose a sponsor with the capacity and drive to make a difference, however uncomfortable for some this may be.
Improve financial management Most established academies have a chartered accountant as director of finance and administration, familiar with the accounting rules laid down by companies house as well as the statement of recommended practice (SORP) requirements associated with charitable status. Where a school already has effective business management systems, or where a primary school is too small to bear this cost alone, it makes sense to at least buy in the oversight of a properly qualified accountant from another academy, or to group together to share the cost.
Conclusion Academy status is an amazing opportunity to drive improvement through greater freedom, improving management and getting better value from limited resources.
But if you are thinking about when to convert you need to decide if you are really ready. Schools need robust and secure middle and senior leadership because of the pressure of the conversion process.
Above all learning has to be at the centre of becoming an academy.
Ensuring a clear focus on progress and attainment and not becoming too busy with all the processes of running your academy is essential if standards are to continue to rise.
But it is always worth remembering that after conversion most academies biggest question is why they hadn’t converted before.