Stories + Views
The myths of academy conversion
Many local authority (LA) community schools, particularly secondary schools, are rushing to convert to academy status in just a few weeks – hardly enough time for governing bodies, let alone parents, to understand fully the implications. So let’s nail the myths.
Claim: Academies can opt out of the national curriculum. Fact: Yes, they can, but community schools already have enough flexibility within the national curriculum to innovate. If opting out of the national curriculum is such a good thing, then why doesn’t the Secretary of State, Michael Gove, give this freedom to all schools? That would cost nothing and he’d save money on the national curriculum review going on at the moment. In any case, no secondary school is going to opt out of the English Baccalaureate (EBacc) because schools will be judged on the number of pupils who pass it.
Claim: Academies can free themselves from the control of local authorities. Fact: Schools already have a great deal of autonomy. LA control is limited to such things as admissions. And LAs give schools a lot of support – the boring stuff, like office work, legal requirements, building maintenance and so on. This means schools can concentrate on their core service: providing education. When academies opt out of local authority control, they have to do all this legal and administrative work. Heads should be concentrating on the education that the school provides not poring over the IT contract, the payroll, maternity payments and so on. And academies can set their own admissions criteria.
Claim: Academies can change the times of the school day and term times. Fact: yes, they can, but community schools can also change the times of the school day as long as they follow the correct procedure, like consulting parents. LA maintained schools in a particular local authority all have the same term times. This helps parents who have children at more than one school in the authority. Parents will not be pleased if their local academy chooses term times which do not match those of other local schools.
Claim: Academies can change the pay and conditions of service of their teachers. Fact: yes, they can, although existing staff have their pay and conditions protected. New staff, though, may find that they are being paid on a different scale and have different conditions. Michael Gove http://www.tes.co.uk/article.aspx?storycode=6082589 has said that a perk of being employed by an academy is that staff could have private health care. Parents will not be pleased if they discover that money which should be used to pay for their children’s education is going to finance private medicine for the school’s staff. Neither will they be impressed that the Secretary of State thinks this is an acceptable way of spending the education budget.
Claim: Academies can get more money. Fact: Academies are given £25,000 to pay for the legal costs of conversion. Local authorities also have to pay for these costs out of Council Tax revenue – North East Lincolnshire http://ht.ly/5o0ws has already said it costs the Council £30,000 per academy conversion. This is money that could be spent on essential Council services. Academies will get extra money per year but this is only to cover the cost of those services which the LA previously provided.
Claim: Academies can decide how to spend their money. Fact: local authorities keep back a proportion of their funding for schools to pay for the services they provide before passing the bulk on to community schools. Community schools are free to spend their grant money as they wish. Of course, academies might broker a cheaper deal, but this isn’t always the case. Some converter academies have found the cost of their IT licences soar. Academies could also decide not to buy-in certain services, like music provision, from the LA. If enough academies in an area decide not to buy these, then the provision will stop altogether. If academies decide to buy-in to an academy chain they run the risk of having less autonomy than they did when under local authority control, and of having money siphoned off to pay for the head office which may a long way from the school.
The worst aspect of academy conversion is the effect on parents. Parents cannot appeal to the local authority if they have an unresolved complaint about an academy because the local authority has no power to act. Parents have to complain directly to the Secretary of State. It’s the same with admissions. If a child is denied a place at an academy parents have to appeal to an independent panel set up by the academy. If parents are still dissatisfied, they have to appeal to the Secretary of State who is the only person with power to direct an academy to take a child. The Department for Education seems to have no section ready to deal with parental complaints about academies.
The information above shows that academy status is not the huge benefit that schools, governing bodies and parents have been led to believe. Parents whose schools have converted to academy status without letting them know the information above have every right to feel aggrieved.