Academies are the most common type of secondary school in England, now making up 55 per cent of the education sector, but academisation has come under renewed criticism lately, with 14 of the 350 academy chains now restricted from taking on more schools. However, many academies have enjoyed greater educational attainment and the freedoms offered by academy status remain a draw for many schools. So what factors determine success, and how can schools prepare themselves for the challenges of greater freedom?
Higher autonomy Greater autonomy has always been one of the chief attractions of academy status. The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s (OECD) Andreas Schleicher, once described as “the most important man in education” by Michael Gove, cites greater autonomy as a common feature of some of the world’s most successful education systems. The combination of greater flexibility for heads and rigorous public accountability is, Schleicher says, a hallmark of the strongest education systems. The accountability part of this statement is crucial however, and it is this issue that lies at the heart of the criticisms facing the academy chains that have been subject to restrictions. For many schools, the journey has been a successful one, leading to increased attainment for pupils and, in some cases, an even closer relationship with their local authorities.
Back in 2011, the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) conducted a survey amongst 1471 school leaders. The results indicated that nearly three quarters of those converting to academy status believed that, in addition to greater freedoms, conversion would also benefit the school financially. In recent months this picture has been tainted somewhat by reports of several academies that needed financial assistance from the Department for Education (DfE). Chris Cook, education correspondent for the Financial Times, recently covered the issue, reporting that while conventional schools can call on their local authorities for help, academies do not have access to council funds and, in some cases, maybe denied access to advice and guidance. A governing body has an important role to play in ensuring an academy has access to this good advice. The flexibility offered to academies means that schools can select their governing bodies based on their needs, so a recognition of the importance of support and financial advice is crucial.
The importance of leadership Estelle Morris, ex-secretary of state for education under Labour, also believes that leadership is growing in importance within the changing educational landscape. Writing in her Guardian column in March, she cited greater accountability, autonomy and the demand to raise standards as being the triggers for “an even greater revolution for governors. The shift in power over the last 30 years from local authorities to schools means the largest volunteer force in the country has had to transform itself from ‘friends of the school’, to a body capable of running a multimillion-pound key public service.”
“The realities of becoming an academy are that the financial gains are not as great as you might think and the governing body needs to strike a balance between challenging the school and supporting its aims and ethos,” says Marie Lister, executive principal of South Axholme Academy in Doncaster. “Ultimately, we made the decision to convert because we wanted to be able to shape our own future, to have greater flexibility in managing our finances and because it is clear that this is the direction of travel for the education sector and we didn’t want to be either left behind or taken over by a large chain.”
As part of the newly formed Isle Education Trust, the step to becoming an academy was a natural progression for South Axholme Academy, which had already previously converted from state maintained to trust status. The school has just under 900 enrolled pupils between the ages of 11 and 16. “We were always aware that this is a very big undertaking that requires a mind-set change for the finance and administration teams,” says Marie. “Initially there is little impact on teaching staff, but from a management point of view, it is critical to invest in quality support staff or provide good training for existing staff.”
This focus on the future is echoed by Wendy Wheldon, headteacher of Greengate Lane Academy in Sheffield, which caters for 224 pupils aged between three and 11. The school also made the decision to convert based on the increased freedoms conversion offers. “The freedom is great but there are always challenges related to the complexities of the finance system, especially for primary schools who don’t always have the financial expertise that’s necessary,” says Wendy, a sentiment echoed by Marie. “You are very busy setting up the business to begin with and it really is imperative that you don’t take your eye off the ball and allow the business tail to wag the education dog.”
Measuring performance The National Audit Office published a report on managing the expansion of the academies programme, which evaluated the implementation of the programme from May 2010. The report found that losing the economies of scale that some local authorities offered by centrally procuring service would result in unforeseen increased costs.
“The Academies Programme is a key element of the Government’s plans to reform the school system. Delivering a ten-fold increase in the number of academies since May 2010 is therefore a significant achievement. However, the Department for Education was not sufficiently prepared for the financial implications of such a rapid expansion, or for the challenge of overseeing and monitoring such a large number of new academies,” stated Amyas Morse, head of the National Audit Office. “It is too early to conclude on academies’ overall performance, and this is something I intend to return to in the future. As the Programme continues to expand, the Department must build on its efforts to reduce costs and tackle accountability concerns if it is to reduce the risks to value for money.”
A rise in the cost of financial services and insurance were the two areas of rising costs, but some academies still maintain close links with their local authorities and informal networks can also be a solution. “In addition to the support available from the DfE and, in our case, the local authority, there are lots of people out there who have gone through the same process and in my experience they are very willing to share their knowledge and offer advice,” says Marie.
Attainment targets In addition to the increased financial intricacies that many schools can face, both South Axholme and Greengate Lane cite the need to ensure greater attainment and achievement as the priorities for any school considering conversion. “You have to make sure your rationale for converting is secure and that your vision is clear and achievable,” says Marie.
“This needs to be communicated to all stakeholders. Don’t try to change too much too quickly; you need to have a carefully constructed plan and be patient. Rome wasn’t built in a day and alongside developing the academy, you have to keep up with a constantly changing educational landscape, ensuring that everything you do is centred around the best interests of your students.”