Three types of academies: “Rewarded succeeders”, “Punished failures” and “Near boiled Frogs”

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“Think of yourselves as a frog in a pan of water on the stove. You can wait for the flames of Ofsted to bring the water to the boil, or jump out now while you still can. I would advise you to jump now.”

DfE broker quoted by David Wolfe QC, evidence to Education Select Committee

In other words, schools jump before they're pushed – these were the words used by a community school governor faced with academy conversion in April 2012. MPs have since debated enforced conversion: one MP describing the work of academy brokers as using methods from the “Vito Corleone textbook” – making schools an offer they can’t refuse.

As well as frogs in very hot water, Wolfe described two other “streams” whereby maintained schools become academies.

These are:

1“Rewarded succeeders”. These are (usually) successful schools given permission to become academies. The Academies Act 2010 requires governing bodies to consult with stakeholders but, as Wolfe points out, a Governing Body contemplating conversion has already made its mind up to proceed. This can lead to stakeholders viewing the process as anything but “transparent, open minded and participative”.

2“Punished failures”. These are schools identified as being “eligible for intervention” by, say, a poor Ofsted or low results. Wolfe has concerns with this – lack of transparency in choosing the sponsor, lack of “meaningful public process” which discusses alternative ways of improvement, and the imposition of an Interim Executive Board (IEB) which is supposed to “enable the restoration of a normal governing body” but in reality the IEB pushes through academy conversion.

Wolfe takes issue with the word “sponsor” – the term implies “partnership”. But this is misleading, he argues. Sponsored academies have no separate legal identity but are local branches of the sponsoring chain. One consequence, already noted by the Academies Commission and on this site, is that such academies often have fewer powers and less autonomy than when they were local authority (LA) maintained schools. Academies in chains can only act within the constraints imposed by the chain:

“Certainly, it cannot be said governing bodies [of academies in chains] now retain what was previously identified as their core roles: setting the vision, ethos and strategic direction of their school, performance management of the head teacher, and ensuring the sound, proper and effective use of the school’s finances.” (Wolfe)

Added to the issues highlighted by Wolfe, there are growing concerns about the financial arrangements of academy chains. The Guardian discovered thousands of pounds of taxpayers’ money went to companies linked to the chain’s Trustees or their relatives. The Education Funding Agency found improper use of public funds at Priory Federation and E-Act; “unusual” payments to Trustees at AET and £1m claimed for non-existent students by the Barnfield Federation whose outgoing Director received money under a Compromise Agreement which the Skills Funding Agency thought he might not have been entitled.

The Education Select Committee is currently investigating academies and free schools. It’s to be hoped that submissions by David Wolfe and others will go some way to counteract the propaganda about academies promoted by the Department for Education, academy chains and most of the media.
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