What does academy status really mean?

05 Jun 2010 BBC News Online

Academy status is "a state of mind more than anything else".

That is the view of the former Schools Commissioner, Sir Bruce Liddington, who heads EACT, which sponsors eight academies with more in the pipeline.

He was trying to answer my question: "what exactly makes an academy different?"

As we could be about to see academies in England leap from just over 200 now to well over 2,000 in a few years, it is a key issue.

Professor Chris Husbands of the Institute of Education says that it could be "the most significant change in the school system for 45 years".

Yet others, such as Liz Reid, chief executive of the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust, characterise the change as "more evolution than revolution".

So what is the reality behind the rhetoric of academies?

Greater autonomy

Perhaps the most misleading, and frequently repeated, claim is that becoming an academy allows schools to "escape local authority control".

This is ridiculous because local councils no longer have "control" of schools.

Successive reforms over the past two decades have given all schools much greater autonomy.

Town halls no longer determine how schools spend their money, what or how they teach, or how they are held accountable.

Schools are constrained in many ways.

But these constraints come from national government or national bodies, be it the national curriculum, national tests, Ofsted, or government legislation on issues such as safeguarding or Every Child Matters.

Local education authorities are a pale shadow of their former selves.

Their last remaining influence is in the provision of school places, organisation of the school admissions process, and as the stretcher-bearers when schools fail.

The differences between mainstream schools and academies will soon be even smaller

That is not to say they do not do important work.

They provide vital services such as educational psychologists and special educational need support and more humdrum, but essential, functions such as payroll management and legal advice.

Even head teachers who have little time for their local authorities would laugh at the idea that they are controlled by them.

So what are the essential freedoms that academy status brings?

They are relatively few and, if the coalition government is true to its word, the differences between mainstream schools and academies will soon be even smaller.

The list of freedoms gained through academy status includes: freedom to adapt the national curriculum, to vary teachers' pay and conditions, and to vary the length of the school day/week/year.

And….well, that's about it.

Quality status

Since the government has promised to give all schools greater curriculum freedom and to end national arrangements for pay and conditions the "freedom premium" for academies will soon be greatly reduced.

So why else would schools want to become academies?

There are three reasons: status, money, and what Sir Bruce Liddington's calls "state of mind".

The first of these - status - is problematic.

Giving all "outstanding" schools a free pass to academy status is a clever move. It equates academies with quality.

Lesson Schools are constrained in many ways, says Mike Baker

This is a key change: remember that until now academies have been the response to school failure, not to success.

The real successes of the academies programme have been where poor schools in deprived neighbourhoods have been replaced by stunning new buildings, enthusiastic new staff, and a fresh start with high aspirations for all children.

Since the new academies will already be successful schools, this will no longer be the characteristic of academies.

Hostage to fortune

Moreover, it is now clear that academy status in itself is no protection from school failure. Several academies have been judged "inadequate" by Ofsted.

In this respect, the indication from the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, that "outstanding" schools will no longer have to undergo Ofsted inspection is a hostage to fortune.

It is the second reason - money - that will drive most schools to become academies.

Incidentally, it was just the same with the grant maintained schools policy of the last Conservative government.

A few enthusiasts left local council control because they really wanted to; the rest followed the money.

As with grant maintained schools, academy status brings a cash uplift of 10% or more.

This is the money otherwise held back by town halls for central education services. For a large secondary school that could be £400,000 a year.

The academies programme is about to become less, not more, radical

Many heads believe they can make better use of that money themselves, even though they may continue to purchase some services from the local authority.

At a time of financial austerity (and in terms of education spending cuts we have not seen anything yet) the lure of extra cash is powerful.

So, finally, what about the notion that academy status is about "a state of mind"?

In the early days of academies, under Tony Blair's government, the new schools were strikingly different and innovative.

It was not just the imaginative, state-of-the-art buildings but the whole approach to teaching and learning that was new.

However, more recent academies have been less innovative and there is no requirement for already "outstanding" schools to demonstrate innovation.

In this respect, the academies programme is about to become less, not more, radical.

Instead of being hothouses of experimentation, academies will become mainstream.

Concern

In that sense this change is just another stage in the evolutionary process that began with City Technology Colleges, Grant Maintained Schools and Specialist Schools.

However, there are two important areas of concern.

First, going it alone without local authority support will be a big departure for many schools, especially primaries and special schools.

As David Rawlinson of the education law firm Halliwells has warned, setting up an academy normally requires years of planning and preparation. If they take the fast-track route offered by the government, schools could be replacing "one set of red tape with another".

However, more and more schools, including primaries, are now part of federations or groups. These will find academy status easier to handle than stand-alone schools.

Turfed out

So the big change ahead may, I suspect, be less about the creation of more academies and more about the start of an era of large chains of schools run by academy sponsors or education management firms.

The other concern is that local education authorities will be left without the capacity to intervene when cracks appear in local school provision.

If that happens, it may have to be the new school chain managers and sponsors that will have to step into the local authority's shoes.

But unlike local councils, they cannot be turfed out by parents and local voters.

The real test of the new system will be when an area finds itself with either too many or too few school places or where formerly "outstanding" schools start to drop from their high standards.

At present town halls and Ofsted can step in if these circumstances arise - but will they still be able to in the future?

User Comments

Prettypolymath - 07 Jun 2010

Financial incentive

Thanks. Helpful piece Mike.

If the financial incentive is the only real draw for 'academification' these days schools must surely be cautious about how much money will really be available to them in the medium/long term. Schools budgets are protected FOR NOW but Cameron's comments today remind us that this is unlikely in the long term. If large numbers of schools take the academy option LAs may also find ways of reallocating some of the central services money so that it doesn't have to be devolved - eg for free 3&4yo entitlement provision which will also be under pressure.

This doesn't leave much good reason for any school to want to become an academy. Surprised that a good few still do.

school funding anorak - 14 Jun 2010

Financial incentive

You quote the financial incentive as being about 10% - but is it really. LAs hold back 10% for such costs as 3&4 YO free entitlement and for very high cost special needs (pupils in independent special schools), this is still needed and does not form part of the LACSEG (the recoupable amount). As I understand it the remainder comes from the DfE in recompense for the LEA budget that cannot be recouped. But for how long? As more and more academies are opened the DfE won't be able to afford this premium. The costs of the additional responsibilities won't be as economic as they are at present and services that LAs supply will be at full cost (not subsidised).There certainly won't be shiny new buildings and academies will have to queue (nationally rather than locally) for capital funding from the Department. Why this "free from LA new world" sounds attractive is beyond me.

Peter Copping - 20 Jun 2010

Academies

The status argument is surely altered now that 'Free Schools' will all be called academies (see the DoE's note on how to set up a free school). However escaping Gove's National Curriculum ...'a focus on the basics' and 'organised around subject disciplines' with SATS and a new 6+ test, may tempt a lot of Primaries to go 'independent' They may not be able to avoid SATs though since this is not clear.

bored writing reports - 25 Jun 2010

Financial Incentive

I think the biggest shock to Mr Gove will be the number of 'Outstanding' schools that, having 'expressed an interest', will then turn the offer down. Why? It could easily be financial suicide.

It looks likely our school will do just that. Our budget from the LEA is yet again cut and in deficit, and there is no new money on offer. True, we gain what the LEA should give us, but the gain is not much, but that leaves us barely breaking even. Then we have to buy those services the LEA gave within our settlement. The result is a net loss to the school.

How can this be? The LEA system tends to fund the 'Outstanding' schools with the least money per pupil, preferring to reward 'less successful' schools with more money. The new Academy system proposed does not change this.

Once the 'NO's' start rolling in, Mr Gove may have a lot of humble pie to eat. Or maybe the department will offer extra funding under the table to make it work? They would have to put about £500k per annum on the table to make the financials work for our school. What if that is true for the others too?

Gove-rnor - 07 Jul 2010

Academies

It seems to me that divide and separate is the policy. The support and advice received from our LA is outstanding and could not be bought from the additional funding. We are not under "Local Authority Control" that was taken away many years ago. Think again Mr Gove, you are in danger of establishing a two or three tier system in which those in greatest need are, again, sent to the bottom of the class!!

Ayo Odelana - 30 Nov 2010

Turnig over a private school to the government

I will like to be informed on the steps to be taken in respect of the above subject.

Mr. Peter Asquith-Cowen - 27 Jan 2011

History

I found this article most interesting and informative. As a retired schoolmaster,I have to say the whole business, starting with Government intervention in the late 80's with the National Curriculum, its later revision, the constant game of 'ping pong'- each political party having its own ideology, and "playing with childrens' and teachers' lives"- appalling! As a historian, I look back to the dark, grim, forbidding, brick schools that emerged as a result of the 1870 Education Act, in all our major cities, and have to give them a degree of praise. It is a fallacy to believe these were 'halcyon days' when children left school literate and numerate; many didn't. Newspaper evidence, that I have collated,in my researches, for Kingston-upon-Hull, indicate the many times children were before the School Board for inveterate truancy, and that many had time off for 'Tatie picking.' My own Grandfather got into trouble for truancy. Many older people I have met still have trouble with spelling, writing and basic numeracy. It is my professional opinion, that however schools are 'dressed up'; whether they are Direct Grant Schools, County Council run schools, or....."Academies" They will only be as good as the staff that run them , as good as the quality of children attending, and the kind of attitude and support their parents give to the school and its staff. In many ways, as I peruse and investigate the History of British Education, in my retirement days, I find constant corollaries with the past - that the whole of British Education is a reflection of our brutish,hierarchical class-system based on wealth, social prestige and vanity. No amount of Government initiatives to 'improve' will change anything. To date,Andrew Niall(Journalist) has pointed out that with the departure of Alan Johnson and Andy Coulson, the last examples of the meritocratic ideals of the post 1950's, the Government is staffed by wealthy, Eton/Harrow educated "toffs". In short, we are now ruled by "the frocks", the "Bourgoisie", not even the old aristocracy, who lost real power in 1918.Britain is unique in that it has avoided any major upheavals or "Revolutions" in its past. The Civil War and the drive to end Stuart rule, often called "The Glorious Revolution of 1688" did not really involve the 'ordinary'people. Again, the outstanding reason for preventing a Catholic Monarchy was a fear that returning to the "Old Religion" would see money drifting away to the Pope's coffers in Rome. It is not without some justificatiion that Napoleon called us 'A Nation of Shopkeepers.'The only real reason the Government saw fit to establish State Education by an Act of Parliament was because as The Empire grew, shops and offices needed literate and numerate staff. What as taught in schools from 1870-1980+ was largely to weed out the new rulers (11+) from the dross of idiots, to make them 'loyal'(National anthems sung, portraits of the Royals on all school-hall walls)and obedient citizens, willing to "Die for King and Country" which many of the poor, undernourished peasants did in WW1, we know from army records how short of stature, ill-fed and unhealthy many of the recruits were in 1914; with rotten teeth and rickets.(See: "A Study of Townlife" by B.S.Rowntree, c.1900) This is at the time when were a great Empire. Our own people lived in squalor and misery. The only thorn in the side of our rulers was the emergence in the 19th century of the Trades Unions, and eventually the Labour Party, the brain-child of the Scotsman, Keir Hardie. Subsequently the machinations of Tony Blair et al has enshured that "New" Labour jettisoned the 'founding principles' of this party and anchored it safely as the left-wing of the Tory Party, thus enuring money stayed hwere it has always been....in the hands of the few, and that promises can be broken, especially by the Lib/Dems, who have never seen power since the demise of Asquith around 1914. Nothing has changed. If anything, we have retrogressed. Listening to people, living near the Banking Centre of London on TV last night, they lamented how their living-standards were falling, while the rich, fat-cat bankers were getting richer and richer and are totally indifferent to the English poor, trotting off to Davros to discuss all and sundry, and enjoy expensive wine and food. Meanwhile, I note teachers are not sleeping, no certainly not. The members of the ATL Teachers' Union have not taken strike action for over 30 years. So, what's all the fuss about? It is about the Government's cuts and a projected raise of 3.4% in pension contributions by 2014. Add to this, the new Academies 'freedom to vary teachers' pay and conditions' is sure to cause alarm and anger. This is an attempt to undermine National Pay Agreements fought for and won on behalf of teachers' by their unions. I'm sorry this is a protracted reply. it has to be. The issues aren't simple. They're grounded in history, class-struggle, political intrigue and dishonest, back-room deals that are aimed at 'turning the clock back.' There is a storm brewing in Britain. It was prefaced by the student riots and it will gather pace. If the Coalition Government go on the way they are, it is just possible that one day this country could see a social upheaval....a Revolution! There has been similar as I type in Tunisia and now in Egypt. Why? Corruption, oppression, greed and all the seven deadly sins in operation, run by business tycoons, big business and the banking system. this time it isn't the Royals who are really in the firing line, it will be the corrupt people who have taken over the Reigns of Government. Keir hardie would 'turn in his grave' at the antics of Mr.Sheridan and more. The new "Acadamies" along with much of the rubbish churned out from the unimaginative mind of Michael Gove, may become the 'norm' but for a while. The future for ordinary children and Education in general looks grim when it is at the mercy of unscrupulous politicians who hope to gain brownie-points, for re-inventing the wheel. At the end of the day; Money talks. The rich will send their children to private schools and they in turn will tutor these children for Oxbridge and Cambridge. They in their turn will churn out a whole new generation of graduates destined for "The City" top jobs in business and commerce and, as 'Old boys' the Masonic network which runs Britain in collaboration with the Jewish Cabal, will as a self-perpetuating organism, rule Britain for years to come unless there is a real and a bloody revolution to turn everything on its head. The trouble is, this usually involves the murder of hundreds of innocent people, the emergence of monsters like Hitler, Stalin and Franco....and more recently Papa Doc, Pol Pot and Mugabe. In this respect, humanity is neither evolutionary nor revolutionary. Just one lot of 'bastards' takes over from the previous lot; and the new lot are, invariably worse than their predessecors."Education!Education!Education! Must surely be the biggest three word lie ever said. Tony Blair is very clever indeed. He'll scuttle his way round Chilcot, and continue to earn millions. These are the people who rule us today. I give scant credence to any of them, we would all be better off without any of them. George Galloway talks a lot of angry, embiterred sense, but I doubt if it will get him anywhere. If you're lucky, like me, and you're out of the rat-race living on a reasonable pension, with no mortgage, a bus-pass and a state-pension (hopefully) to look forward to, then at 60 years I don't think I've done too bad. It doesn't stop me from thinking, passing a cursory or cynical eye at those who want my vote, or sitting back and thinking "well, i wouldn't trust one of them with 1/2 a 1/2 p coin. Would you?
It's the youngsters. the teenagers, the young graduates who have been shown to have come off the worst in this round of cuts meted out by this Coalition Government. They are the ones who,have truly lost out despite all the rhetoric of Cameron & Clegg. Truly, "A Lost Generation". There were 'Angry Young Men' before, and I expect if my predicted "Revolution" ever does come about it will be led by this lost generation, some of whom are highly articulate, if idealistic (which is the right of the young to be) and intelligent. Not all of them go to Grammar or Private Schools, and many come from poor backgrounds but are avid for learning and change. So the Aldous Huxley's, James Joyce's and Sigfried Sasoon's will all find modern parallels, and artist like Spencer and Nevinson et al will also find expression. I hope to make another 40 years. I wonder what I will see. I wonder what will have become of England. (The "United Kingdom" or "Great Britain" are a hollow farce!) What part we will play in international affairs, and how better or worse the condition of our people will become Global Warming or No Global Warming! I wonder how long this Government will last and what a mess it will have made out of all the dreams that Beveridge and his pals envisage for "A Land Fit for Heroes" As for "We're All In It Together" Like Blair's clarion call, it is the most empty, fatuous,maxim I've heard. Can't cameron do better? This epithet was invented during the last war. No, Mr.Cameron, I think your policies will see the poor get poorer and rich, wealthier. This is the way it has always been, while "The Mutual Appreciation Society" continue to heap praises (and money) on themsleves at the sickening BAFTA awards and similar. It's like the painting of the rich lady looking out at the Jarrow Crusade from the windows of "the Ritz" Hotel in London in 1936, blissfully unaware of why they were marching, or who they were. This, I fear is the same scenario today. A large army of ill-educated, dysfunctional people living on state handouts,hardly able to articulate themselves, living on drugs, cigarettes and alcohol presided over by a small minority of well-educated, articulate, unprincipled businessmen, bankers and entrepreneurs all in cahouts with unscrupulous politicians -of all parties - whose currency is lies, broken promises, empty rhetoric and meaningless policies. Meanwhile they've all had 'their fingers in the till' and apart from the few that get caught, they drift away for a while until the hue and cry has melted away, and then, they re-appear on the back-benches. Lord Archer couldn't be a better example, but there's more, many more. So, reader, I shouldn't put too much faith in the 'staring' eyes of Michael Gove. He really isn't bothered. If and when this Coalition are voted out, he'll go away with a nice fat pension. That's all he is really concerned with.

Best Wishes,
Dr.Peter Asquith-Cowen,
Retired schoolmaster, historian, researcher, writer, critic/cynic and, I hope, gentleman. (One of a rare and dying breed!) Good-day

Nick Hill - 13 Mar 2011

Dr Asquith-Cowen's piece

I simply want to add a rousing three cheers to the words of Dr Asquith-Cowen. He articulates precisely what is wrong with both our education system and the country in general. In fact, any half-way educated person can see that the two are ineluctably connected and always have been. What reason can there be for private schools other than the perpetuation of undeserving privilege and the maintenance of an increasingly rigid social heirarchy? As for the liklihood of a revolution which actually might justify the name, I do not think it will come anytime soon. I'm with Woody Allen: I started to feel a lot better when I gave up hope! Enjoy your retirement, Dr Asquith-Cowen!

Josh - 07 Apr 2011

Dr Asquith-Cowen's piece

Please let me add a second three cheers to those thought provoking and almost indisputable points. As a member of the 'Lost Generation' who happened to have coincided with the information age, let me assure you that we fully align ourselves with the notion that the current education paradigm serves only to perpetuate the lack of social mobility which plagues the cities of this great nation. As for your revolution, I doubt it is far off, when there is no work yet the bills keep coming there is a point of no return; the problems that plagued the peoples of the arab revolutions might not be shared as explicitly by us, the misfortune that sparked the uprisings, the lack of employment and dire economic times, that we share. I also think it was great for Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu to describe them as correcting abnormalities which find themselves traced back to the days of Kitchener and Churchill who tore the M.E open with the British Colonial Hand.
What of the Lost Generation, many of whom are left to wonder the streets only to be plagued by Mosquito alarms which conjure up images of 1984; Apart from the financial sector jobs and specialized service jobs which are quickly filled by the COTC privileged students, the remaining(majority) end up working in basic services. A quick glance shows where the majority work after the NHS and the MOD which means being an underpaid nurse or a soldier fighting a war for corporate interests; you end up in Tesco or Sainsbury who employ as many as the MOD (2nd largest employer). What does working for one of these Big Business MNC's imply, well for one you are a completely disposable asset, job securities and benefits are a joke and they are increasingly seeking to improve profits by cutting costs, enter self service.
I am unlucky/lucky enough to live through a recession comparable to the Great Depression, an opportunity to see firsthand how outdated, mundane and futile the monetary system really is with debt being the driver of Poverty, Climate Change and structural violence. With increased mechanization in all sectors including the financial, and a rapid embracing of this mechanization since it drives production/profits up and costs down there will be far and few jobs remaining in the coming decades.
Upheaval is inevitable, I hope it is bloodless, I hope the House of Lords and Chambers are shaken up/ made more representative or abandoned, I hope a new Britain emerges at the forefront of 21st Century Enlightenment leading the way into a Sustainable/Liberal future for citizens of Britain and the world. But most importantly I hope the education system is reformed, made to reflect the advancements made in cognitive and neuro sciences. A reflection of ones natural arithmetic abilities or ability to memorise the periodic table should not be the indicator of how successful one can become. We are a people born with varying natural abilities, what the naturally mathematic lack in perspective the naturally creative make up for in imagination. The current education paradigm needs to embrace and harness all natural elements of intellect from young individuals rather than nurture the most profitable all in the name of value adding.
As for this individual well, I envisage a life of travels, protests, wonderful encounters and various learning curves until coming home to Britain to engange in the problem at hand; an outdated monarchical government, a big business lobby too big for its own shoes and a foreign policy fit for Richard the Lionheart.

David Salford - 25 Sep 2011

Academy Status

My daughter's high school has this subject under consideration. Given the comments made by others on this issue, it seems to me that it is just a short cut to more money, and not a lot else. OK I voted blue for a change from the Red peril, but now I doubt I would vote for my daughter's pet hamster for parliament. I am confused and would welcome any comments from others who have gone through this process and what their children / school got out of it, is it really any better?

Peter Manley - 18 Nov 2011

Accademy

We are reviewing the Accademy option at present and as a Foundation school that owns the land, I cannot see a need to change. Also I fear that to go with a Trust is little more than signing up for a franchise. Comments please

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Tom Peters - 12 Jan 2012

Academy Status

Our School is starting an Academy status consultation. Main points of attraction being touted as being in control of student enrollment policy and the extra cash.

Now if all the schools in the borough are academies and have narrow selection policies that shut out certain students from all these academies, what is the recourse for the parents ? Who will arbitrate or force the schools to admit these children ?
Can you kindly provide an insight in to this situation please ?
Thanks

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