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What does academisation mean for our schools?

· Education,politics

Post by Gemma Perkins, MD.

I am always wary of posts that are too political. I was once advised that as a business, it’s important to remain impartial so as not to put off clients. But as someone who works within the education sector – as a leadership trainer and as a teacher – the prospect of academisation has far reaching implications that I believe people are unaware of. Some of them may be well meaning but others open up the school system to abuse. I believe it is very important that parents, students and members of the public fully understand what it could mean for them so that they can share their informed views, prepare or even take action if they feel it appropriate. So here’s my attempt at being relatively impartial…

What is academisation?

Currently, state schools are run by a head teacher, leadership team and governing body. They receive their state funding from the local authority (an elected set of people) and subsequently report back to them on matters concerning the school.

An academy is still funded by the government but the money comes directly from government. The school is still run by a head teacher or principal but the school is also governed by an external organisation called an academy trust. These are companies that run in a similar way to charities, with trustees and members making the decisions about the school. A local governing body may still be involved in school decision making, but this is at the discretion of the academy trust. Academy trusts provide the direction and decision making for the school, have greater freedom in financial decisions and can control their own admissions process.

When do schools change?

Previously, academisation could happen in two situations. A ‘failing’ school could be forced to academies. If Ofsted judged them to be inadequate for any reason (low results, low attendance, poor teaching quality etc) then a school was taken over by an academy chain without consultation. The theory behind this is that a sudden change in leadership and direction would help the school to turn things around quickly.

Or schools that were performing well could volunteer to convert to academy status in order to act as a shining example of good performance. They would probably partner with another local school in order to show best practice and they would be allowed to choose their own chain or sponsor.

Now, George Osborne’s budget and the related education white paper state that all schools in England must either convert by 2020 or be committed to convert by 2022. It seems this falls before the election, so that no other party has the chance to reverse these changes. It is worth noting that academising ALL schools was not in the Conservative manifesto – only inadequate or coasting schools.

classroom, school, schools, academy, academies, academisation, Nicky Morgan, education
What are the implications?

The academisation process, alongside the education white paper: Educational Excellence Everywhere (March 2016), has far reaching implications across British schools. It is impossible to cover all aspects of change – but here are a few key ones that feel prominent to me.

Academies set their own pay

Before, there were national guidelines on pay for teachers and leaders within schools. They prescribed how much to pay based on experience in the job. Recently they were reformed to coincide with performance management measures, meaning people had to prove they were improving pupil results before accessing the next pay rise. Now academy trusts have total freedom to set their own pay.

Pros: Teacher retention could be tackled with pay rises as an incentive. Teachers with areas of expertise can be paid more for what they bring to the role. Schools can choose to revert back to the previous pay system (which was quite popular) of their own accord.

Cons: Teachers can be paid disproportionate amounts compared to each other, or indeed, the leadership. Academy CEOs can set very high levels of pay which reduces money in the system for other resources (figures for this can be found online). Pay can be dropped to a low level if the board wishes.

Academies do not have to follow the national curriculum

The national curriculum is a document which sets out the skills and knowledge that students should learn throughout their school life. It is relatively prescriptive in some areas. For instance in maths, stating exactly which calculation methods are to be favoured, or in science which topic areas to cover. Others are more flexible. E.g. in history; stating which historical skills need to be demonstrated but allowing schools freedom on the topic they can deliver it with. Academies do not need to follow this curriculum, though they do have to ‘Provide a broad and balanced curriculum’. They also do not need to teach sex and relationships education.

Pros: Teachers can choose their topics more freely based on what they think their students need.

Cons: Students will be tested with a national assessment which will reflect the national curriculum – schools not teaching the curriculum are more likely to have ‘failing’ students. Schools could omit or add topics that are controversial such as not teaching evolution. The government will have wasted time writing a curriculum that they now deem to be non mandatory.

Teachers may not be qualified

All teachers previously has to have undergone a qualification that gave them QTS (Qualified teacher status). This was usually a degree, PGCE or an in school training scheme that ended with QTS. To gain QTS requires observations of teaching practice as well as theoretical study on how to plan, teach and assess effectively.

The new white paper allows schools to bring in staff who do not have QTS as well as make recommendations that an individual become accredited as a teacher when the school feels they are ready. This is to be verified by a high performing school rather than an academic body / university.

Pros: In school training options will widen which could recruit more people to the teaching profession. Individuals with specialism could be brought into schools e.g. artists, musicians, computer programmers – which would solidify the curriculum.

Cons: Lack of stringent accreditation procedures could reduce the quality of teaching. Individuals with high quality subject knowledge will not necessarily be good at teaching students. Accreditation may be fast tracked and lack appropriate teaching theory (pedagogy).

The role of parents changes

Previously schools could be forced into academy status if they were inadequate or choose to become academies if they were doing well. The latter involved the governors consulting with parents and staff to see if people were happy with the move. The white paper now says academisation is happening regardless of anyone’s opinions – it is just a question of time.

Currently all school governing bodies must have places for parents. This is intended to ensure parent voice is heard. When new academies set up their boards they are ‘encouraged to serve on governing boards’ but ‘we no longer require academy trusts to reserve places for parents’.

Academy trust boards are not the same as governing bodies – now referred to as local governing bodies. This means that the academy trust board ultimately makes the decisions about how a school is run, but can pass aspects of decision making down to the LGB. The LGB may act as an advisory body instead.

Pros: Schools are able to hire individuals with the right skills for the job. These preferably seem to be in finance, business and leadership.

Cons: Parents can be completely pushed out. While their voices can be heard they do not have to be acted upon if the trustee board doesn’t wish to.

board of trustees, govenors, local governing body, academy chain, academisation, education
Final Thoughts

Hopefully there was some element of impartiality there – stating what COULD happen either way – but I imagine my own views probably seeped through. My biggest concern with these changes is the fact that so many things COULD happen. I very much hope that all of the pros come to fruition and go some way towards tackling issues in the current education system (and there are many more pressing issues not included here). But the fact that there are not enough safeguards to ensure the cons don’t happen is worrying. Individual trusts may have the right value set and governance to ensure that children’s best interests are always met, but the fact that there is wiggle room that can be abused – and no authority to report to - means that there will be individual differences between schools and a lot of case studies to come.

If you have questions and concerns about the implications of these new policies make sure to talk to your local school, local authority, MP or even read the government white paper.  

Image Credits
Nicky Morgan, Policy exchange 2014
Classroom, Learning neighborhood 2011
Board meeting, Montgomery County PA 2014
Education white paper: Educational Excellence Everywhere
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