Navigating academy conversion

Adam Wainwright from the Key takes a look at some of the important things to consider when undergoing academy conversion and provides advice for avoiding some of the common problems

Academisation is still relatively young. And those who have taken this path have had to, with relatively little guidance, formalise collaboration and create a sustainable way to exist outside of the local authority.
Academy conversion is likely to be one of the largest projects you’ll undertake, if you decide it’s the right step for your school. We take a look at some of the important things to consider when undergoing the process and provide advice for avoiding some of the common problems schools can face along the way.

Reaching economies of scale?

Leaders whose schools have converted shared some of the reasons they formed or joined multi-academy trusts in DfE non-statutory guidance. It’s worth pointing out that this doesn’t mean every trust experiences all (or any) of these benefits. Nor is it a comprehensive list of the full range of potential benefits. But in the right context, it demonstrates some of the things that have incentivised conversion (as part of a multi-school group, rather than converting standalone).
Generating economies of scale in particular is something that gets a lot of focus in academisation. As academisation has developed, most schools join or form a multi-academy trust, where economies of scale and other efficiencies are enabled in a way that doesn’t exist in single schools (academy or maintained).
But despite possible financial stability afforded to MATs, it is important not to see them as some sort of financial panacea. The DfE’s guidance explains that: ‘The transition from a stand-alone academy to a MAT will not automatically bring economies of scale, or efficiencies, because there may also be additional central costs. It can, however, unlock new opportunities to secure efficiencies ... in the medium to longer term as the trust grows.’
It says that trusts that are “sufficiently large” – at least 1,200 pupils for primary-only MATs and 2,000 pupils for mixed or secondary-only MATs – will be “better able” to absorb cost pressures regarding the central overheads and be financially sustainable in the long term.
This speaks to this element of context we mentioned above; the above benefits aren’t universal, and in particular in this challenging budgetary climate for schools, there are no givens when it comes to financial sustainability. We explore this more in our recent research report into trust growth, which examines how trusts are balancing the need to grow to secure these efficiencies with the risks of expanding too quickly.

Common pitfalls to avoid

If you decide academisation is the right step for your school, here’s our suggestions for how to steer clear of some common problems schools face and how to make sure the process runs as smoothly as possible.

Be clear about why

Make sure you have a clear idea of why you are converting. Identify what you want to change and where you see yourself heading when you become an academy. If you’re not in this position you might find it hard to get the application accepted by the Department for Education (DfE).
If you’re joining a MAT, be clear about how this will change your school, and whether there are decisions that will in the future be made by the MAT rather than the school alone. For example, will there be MAT policies you’ll be adopting, and how do these differ from yours at the moment?

Research your options

Even if your school is becoming a sponsored academy, you can still let the DfE know your preferred outcomes. Research potential sponsors and MATs and suggest your preferred option to your regional schools commissioner. This reduces the risk of ending up in a MAT that isn’t a good match. Conducting your own research can give you a sense of ownership over the process.

Address questions on governance

With MATs, it’s easy to try to please all parties by making sure each school has representation on the board of trustees. In the long run, however, this isn’t a feasible model of governance. As and when the MAT grows, the board would have to grow exponentially so that each new school has representation.

Be honest with each other and acknowledge that the board will be ultimately responsible for the schools in the MAT. This means that local governing bodies will have less power than a maintained school’s governing body.

Tackle complicated issues early

Doing the legwork early in the process will mean that you’re not distracted when the academy opens and can avoid unnecessary complications later down the line.
You should decide early on which, if any, local authority (LA) services you want to buy back after conversion. This lets you make early decisions about which services you’ll need to purchase elsewhere (or manage centrally).
Importantly, work out when your payroll contract will end. When the school becomes an academy, and therefore a different legal entity, the current contract ends which, if not dealt with in advance, could result in staff not being paid.

Delegate to a member of staff, not a governor

Governors should have ownership and oversight of the conversion process, but leading on implementing the process itself should not be delegated to a governor. A member of staff, on the payroll, should be the project manager.

Don’t let the process distract you from running the school

The conversion process can be overwhelming for schools and distract from the need to continue to run the school and provide the best education possible to pupils, which in some cases can result in a subsequent dip in performance.

To avoid this, make sure that conversion responsibilities are delegated fairly between the headteacher, SBM and other senior staff. This means the headteacher can still focus on the education being provided.

This guidance was taken from The Key’s article ‘How to avoid the common pitfalls of academy conversion’ which was created in partnership with its associate education experts - Graeme Hornsby, Mark Trusson, Tiffany Beck and Keith Clover.

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