How to make Academy status worthwhile

There are many motives for becoming an Academy. At the Independent Academies Association, we would argue that the only valid reason is to improve your school. Here are five ways our members have made that happen.

1: Do It For A Reason
There are many negative reasons for becoming an academy. Some wish to escape the dead hand of their local authority. Others are jumping before they are pushed, while others still are acting on instruction. None of these is reason enough.

Successful schools are driven by values. How will Academy status reinforce the core values of your school? Consult everyone – governors, staff, students and parents – and communicate the moral purpose behind the change clearly and at every opportunity. The most successful academies foster a can-do culture: their future is in their own hands and there is no external authority to blame if things go wrong. 

Originally one of fifteen City Technology Colleges, Dixons City Academy was one of the first state-funded independent schools in the country. Its sponsor, Lord Kalms, started with one photography shop and ended up as the largest electrical retailer in Europe. He brought a business-like culture to the school which survives today, customer‑focused with a clear eye on the bottom line: it is the most professional, results-driven and student-centred school I have known.

For some schools, academy status will be an opportunity to change their name and their uniform, and to expunge the memory of a failing school from the local consciousness.  Other schools may be interested in the curriculum freedoms that an Academy enjoys, although in the current political climate it takes a brave school to exploit them. Without a strong moral purpose, without the drive to make that new brand a reality for parents and students, academy conversion will have little benefit or meaning.

2: Review Governance
Without the scrutiny of an LA, effective governance is crucial. The governing body of an academy is the employer, it is the only means of holding senior management to account, and it is often the only means of appeal for staff and parents alike. All academy governors need to understand that they are primarily the non-executive directors of a values driven organisation responsible for children’s education, and this supersedes their representation of any narrow interest group.

Governing bodies are best kept small – no more than ten – with job descriptions that make responsibilities clear. A range of skills and experience is also key: a governing body has to offer legal, financial and HR expertise in order to fulfil its proper function.

In the early sponsored academies, this was all very easy: the predecessor 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. At the IAA, we would recommend avoiding those whose central costs are high: no more than four per cent and ideally less.  A national spread without a local hub is also best avoided: there is no point in escaping local authority control and ending up with something just as expensive with no local knowledge or commitment. Above all, choose a sponsor with the capacity and drive to make a difference, however uncomfortable for some this may be.

3: Improve Financial and Business 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 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.

As local authorities are allowed to top-slice less and less of maintained schools’ money, the financial premium of academy status is shrinking. Nevertheless, it is as important as ever to ensure that money is well spent and that the new academy can make cost-effective choices beyond the LA’s bought-in services.

The IAAS Quality Mark enables Academies to buy with confidence from high-quality providers ( In order to gain the Quality Mark, suppliers will have been assessed against a number of criteria, showing they have the experience, products, business standing, and ethical practices suitable for a supplier to education. They also have to offer these products at the best market rate.  Additionally, they will have signed up to the IAAS quality assurance procedures, which allow us to intervene if any disputes arise.

4: Review Pay, Conditions of Service & Staffing Structure
It might be tempting for some to avoid controversy and to skirt opposition by allowing staff to TUPE across into the same jobs with the same terms and conditions as before. This is a missed opportunity.

At our second Academy, Dixons Allerton, we devised a totally new staffing structure from scratch. Where jobs in the predecessor school matched less than 80 per cent to the new ones, we interviewed existing post‑holders first but we were not obliged to appoint them to those roles. We were able to make choices, especially in key areas like senior, subject and pastoral leadership.

The David Young Academy in Leeds (see panel on page 21) offers a pay structure which puts teaching and non‑teaching staff on the same footing. At the Landau Forte Academies, although existing staff in predecessor schools TUPE across on unchanged terms and conditions, they are offered the option of something radically different.

In all three cases, academy conversion has been seized as a one-off opportunity to sweep away long-standing issues, to reinvigorate staff culture, and to ensure that the school is truly focused on delivering the best possible education for children. 

5: Make New Friends
The best academies are anything but isolationist. Many of our members 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 our LA but with its monopoly broken, as a group of headteachers we have at last truly embraced our collective responsibility for the education of all students in Bradford. As a result, in our first eighteen months we have doubled the number of secondary schools graded Good or better by Ofsted.

I also appreciate the benefits of a strong support network. For me, it is the Independent Academies Association. The IAA is rooted in the sponsored Academy movement but is now 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.

Academy leadership can be lonely and is not always easy, but it is also a wonderful opportunity to transform one’s school and the wider educational system. The IAA helps me to make the most of it.

Nick Weller is executive principal of the Dixons Academies and spends one day a week as chief executive of the Bradford Partnership. He took up the chair of the Independent Academies Association at the beginning of March.

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