What is involved in becoming an Academy?

Converting to an academyThe recent draft Education Bill has implied that the conversion to an academy is the preferred route by the Coalition Government for schools and will be the chosen route for new schools launched during their term in office.

However, the decision to convert into an academy is not one to be taken lightly, and schools should ensure they perform a proper assessment and seek out the external advice available to make a fully informed decision.

One of the very first actions a school should take when thinking about converting is to weigh up the potential benefits and hurdles. Becoming an academy may be an attractive prospect due to the increased freedom to decide how teaching is delivered, and greater control over admissions and student numbers.  

What is an Academy?

An academy trust is a charitable company responsible for the running of the academy, which has control over the land and the other assets. Academies have freedom from local authority control, which means they have autonomy over the decisions made and the education they deliver. 

In order to convert to an academy the school has to qualify. Schools currently able to apply are primary and secondary schools that have been rated outstanding or good with outstanding features by Ofsted.

Any school, primary or secondary, which form part of a formal partnership is able to apply, providing at least one of the schools is rated outstanding or good with outstanding features.

What’s more, any school that joins an existing academy with a proven track record of school improvement qualifies.

Therefore, a school does not have to be rated ‘Outstanding’ by Ofsted to apply for academy status as long as they follow the route of a formal partnership. Schools rated as outstanding or good with outstanding features that are applying for academy status have to support other schools; as an essential part of converting to academy status is agreeing to support another school to raise standards.

Conversion to academy status will not appeal to every school, many of which will be happy to remain within local authority control. Such schools may wish to consider becoming foundation or trust schools, which allows a certain degree of independence but with on-going input from the local authority.  These schools have the option of converting to academies at a later stage.

Schools may also wish to consider joining an existing federation of academies, which would provide similar support to that provided by a local authority. Alternatively, a group of schools wishing to convert could set up their own federation which could facilitate joint procurement of services and mutual support.

Should you be considering the conversion to an Academy?

An academy has the flexibility to structure its curriculum in the way that the leadership team think will best suit the needs of the pupils.  However, the subjects covered still need to remain broad and balanced, and include maths, English, science and ICT.

Academies have the option of specialising in one or two subjects like languages, sport and music. They are also not limited to one type of qualification and can offer a range of qualifications, above and beyond those offered by the local authority schools, including BTECs and diplomas.   

There are further benefits to becoming an academy, such as greater control over admissions and student numbers; freedom to purchase support services from providers offering the best value and service; and applying for capital grants from central government.

Not all elements of the conversion process may be beneficial and schools must consider that there are number of potential hurdles that must be undertaken during this process.
These are varying and may involve external advice, including:
•    Terms and conditions of existing staff which are protected by the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations 2006.
•    The Local Government Pension Scheme may be in deficit and a school’s share of this deficit  is passed over and will be required to be repaid
•    Owning the buildings and lands – bringing both freedoms and legal liabilities
•    The governing body will need to be reviewed and new additions potentially appointed with one third being members of staff including the head teacher.

It should also be noted that governors are not personally liable if an academy fails, if they act in good faith while carrying out their duty, but an academy is required to take out liability insurance, with a minimum cover of £10 million, to cover the governing body.

School Business Managers
The role of the school business manager (SBM) in the conversion to an academy is an instrumental one, as the school will become financially independent from the local authority when it converts. An academy receives its funding directly from the government via the YPLA. This means that services, including insurance, payroll, building maintenance, legal and governor services, which were previously provided by the local authority, will need to be procured separately by the academy.

Additionally, and in order for the whole process to run smoothly and ensure that all steps are correctly undertaken, an action plan needs to be prepared. It is important to establish a list of the critical dates which work back from the proposed date of conversion in order to keep the conversion process on track.  In most cases this timetable will be dictated by the Department for Education (DfE) who will provide schools with a list of deadlines for the submission of various documents. The timetable will also need to take into account the necessity to get the relevant approvals required by the governors.

What is the process for converting?
Before taking the decision to convert a consultation must be undertaken. You should consider consulting with staff, pupils and parents, and this could be completed using an online system. It is important to think about the effects that converting may have on all affected parties. 
The dynamics and culture of the school, as well as the curriculum and teaching hours, may change, and it is good practice to seek feedback on reactions to this before making a decision. Legal frameworks will also need to be put in place, from forming an academy trust to finalising a funding agreement. 

See the box out for our step-by-step guide to becoming an academy. The DfE state that this process can be completed in three months, however, this process may be delayed over contracts, debts or land issues.

What are the next steps?
At first glance, the process for academy conversion can appear daunting. It is necessary for schools to have a guiding hand through the process.
To gain further advice on how to convert to an academy you can visit the Department for Education website, www.education.gov.uk, which has a wide range of resources from frequently asked questions to guides on how to apply for academy status.

You can also gain practical advice and assistance as a member of the National Association of School Business Management (NASBM), including the member discussion forums, where you can network with other school business managers undertaking the process. 

Networking with peers

In response to tremendous interest and requests from school business managers on the how, why and when to convert to an academy, NASBM have developed a half day event which will run from 9am-2pm. The events take place at Twickenham on 19 May 2011 and Greater Manchester on 16 June 2011 and will cost £105 for members and £135 for non-members:

The event aims to answer the questions that arise when considering converting to an academy, plus highlight the pitfalls that many school business managers have encountered on the way.
The topics covered on the day will include an overview on ‘why’ and ‘how’ to convert; the legal requirements; practical considerations and avoiding pitfalls; and advice from SBMs who have recently undertaken the process.

The event is open to members and non-members and is suitable for school business managers, headteachers, deputy heads and any key members of the school leadership team that are considering converting. 

Additionally, all delegates attending the event will be provided with a copy of an academy guide.  The guide provides details on the conversion process, plus information on organisations that can assist. The guide has been sponsored by Lloyds TSB Commercial, an Approved Partner of NASBM.

NASBM also has affiliated local groups across the country where you can meet other school business managers and gain insights and advice on the process first hand.

Steps to becoming an academy
Step 1- Registration
•    All schools, including special schools from 2011, are able to apply
•    Schools rated by Ofsted as Inadequate are required to be mentored by a school rated as Outstanding by Ofsted. Schools can also form a federation with other local schools and offer support to those who are required to be mentored
•    All schools have to register at www.education.gov.uk
•    After registering you will be contacted by your named representative at the DfE

Step 2 – Application and pre-approval checks

•    Your school’s governing body needs to pass a resolution in favour of converting to an academy. The Minutes confirming this decision will be required by the DfE
•    Outline plans to the DfE for supporting or partnering with another school, if applicable
•    Appoint a specialist law firm to advise on the legal aspects of your conversion
•    The Secretary of State will need to approve your proposal
•    The process of transferring staff (the Transfer of Undertakings ( TUPE) will be commenced by the local authority and the governing body that currently employs school staff
•    Activate the consultation process with interested parties
•    Consult with your Local Authority regarding a possible share of the LGPS deficit. This will need to be agreed and will have to be repaid to the Authority. Seek an early actuarial valuation and agree a repayment term

Step 3 – Setting up an Academy Trust and Funding Agreement

•    This is the stage at which all legal documents need to be agreed with the DfE
•    The Academy Trust has to be registered with Companies House
•    Transfer or leasing arrangements for school land needs to be finalised
•    Completion of TUPE process
•    Governors complete and close consultation process
•    Funding Agreement signed by Academy Trust and Secretary of State
•    Academy opening date set

Step 4 – Pre-opening

•    All CRB checks completed prior to transfer to academy status
•    Financial systems and contracts with staff and suppliers confirmed
•    Academy registrations with exam bodies confirmed
•    Insurances put in place

Tel: 01788 573300
E-mail info@nasbm.co.uk