The Tory-Lib Dem Government proposes sweeping changes to state education in England. It is rushing an Academies Bill through Parliament designed to vastly increase the number of Academy schools. The proposed legislation removes existing safeguards on the process of converting to Academy status. It allows all schools to apply to become Academies, including primary and special schools.
The Department for Education is going to fast-track applications from “Outstanding” schools, which could re-open as Academies in September. Many other schools could follow. The Government claims that more than 1,000 school heads and governors have “expressed an interest” in taking their school out of local-authority control.
There are major issues with the Coalition’s Academies programme, as this briefing explains.
Lack of consultation The Government proposes that a school can become an Academy simply by a vote of its governing body. The requirement for consultation through the local authority is being removed. Governors will not therefore be obliged to consult parents, staff or the local community.
The Department for Education is refusing even to disclose the names of schools that have expressed an interest in Academy status. Parents, staff and the community are being left in the dark.
How much popular support do Academies have? Opinion polls show that 96% of the public want a good local state school provided by the local authority.
There is too much at stake for schools to stampede over the rights of parents, pupils and school staff. No evidence of improvement Academies are on average no more successful than other schools with comparable intakes. Researchers at the London School of Economics have concluded that the exam results of Academy schools are “statistically indistinguishable” from equivalent schools. They “find no evidence of general positive effects on academic attainment from Academy status.”
Of the 74 Academies which have entered pupils for GCSE's for two or more years, a third have seen their results fall.
We don’t know how Academies do at particular subjects because they don’t have to publish a full breakdown of results.
There is no evidence that Academy status actually works for schools that are already rated Outstanding.
Lack of accountability Academies are not democratic. Unlike schools with local authority oversight, they are not accountable to the local community.
Academies are allowed to work almost entirely without scrutiny. Regulation by the Department of Education is loose and in reality Academies operate at “arms length” from every level of government under long-term funding arrangements. As “exempt charities”, Academies don’t even have to register with the Charity Commission.
The governors of Academy schools are appointed, not elected. Academies tear up the existing governing framework that is meant to give a voice to parents, staff and the local authority and ensure that headteachers are both well supported and held to account.
Academies bring more secrecy and less local democracy. They aren’t even covered by the Freedom of Information Act.
Segregation and inequality Education Secretary Michael Gove wants every Outstanding school to become an Academy. What will be the effect on other community schools?
Academies don’t have to co-operate on admissions, exclusions, SEN, or extended-school initiatives like breakfast clubs. The capacity of local authorities to coordinate and plan provision for the whole community will be severely constrained. How will schools provide rounded social support for children if they opt out of local authority arrangements?
Academies will re-introduce a two-tier education system. Local authorities will be left with a rump of schools facing more challenges, surplus places and less money. How will local communities ensure that Academies operate fair admission and exclusion policies that do not result in other schools becoming sink schools?
Impact on staff Academies can set their own terms and conditions, leaving all school staff vulnerable to attacks at local level.
Academies are not covered by the School Support Staff Negotiating Body (SSSNB), set up in 2009 to design a national pay and conditions framework for support staff in England. Instead of fairness, consistency and transparency, more Academies will mean massive divergence in terms and conditions.
See the section on “Academies, TUPE and staff consultation”.
Inefficiencies The only extra funding available for a school that now opts to become an Academy is from the money that its local authority currently holds for support services. But any additional money would need to be offset against the additional cost to schools of paying for services no longer provided by local authorities because of the reallocation of funding to the school. As an Academy school, the local authority would be under no obligation to provide support services such as governor information and support, financial services, audit, school improvement, advice on health and safety regulations, legal advice, representation and employment support. The new Academy would need to consider how it would access such support in future and contend with having to access such services at a much higher cost.
The Government claims that becoming an Academy school will lead to reduced bureaucratic burdens on headteachers and teachers. This is a fallacy. Moreover, the reality for already hard-pressed governing bodies is that becoming an Academy school will drastically increase the bureaucratic burdens on volunteer school governors as they undertake a raft of statutory functions that previously were discharged on behalf of the school by the local authority or other relevant body. Independence for Academy schools, therefore, comes at a price and could add to and compound the existing difficulties faced by schools in finding people to serve on the governing body.
Schools already have a lot of freedoms. Why would they not want to retain access to local-authority services and advice?
Academies also bring a significant cost at national level. There are already 70 civil servants dealing with funding for the 200 existing Academies, as well as multi-million pound consultancy contracts.
How will the officially estimated cost of setting up new Academies (£0.5bn) be found in these stringent times?
For profit? The new Academy programme provides huge opportunities for the privatisation of school management and ownership. Education Secretary Michael Gove says he has “no ideological objection'” to firms making profits from Academy schools. A handful of governing bodies already contract-out the running of their school to private operators who charge a “management fee” in return.
The Academies Bill gives no protection against Academy sponsors pocketing school reserves or otherwise exploiting their assets.