At this rate it would take 140 years to convert every school to an academy

Fiona Millar's picture
I have been doing a bit of digging into what is really going on with academy conversions on my website 'The Truth About Our Schools' and in my column today in Guardian Education . Several things are becoming clear. Firstly last week's hyperbole about 10% of schools being academies was a combination of government spin and very lazy journalism. In fact it is only 0.16% of all schools. There are now 407 academies open ( out of 20,000 schools and certainly not the 'tipping point' that some right wing commentators were heralding). Two hundred and sixty seven of these were already in the pipeline, and started by the last Labour government, at the time of the general election. The government has opened 136 academies, a far cry from the 2000 that were predicted would rush into the process last summer.

The suggests that many heads and governors have thought twice and, on closer inspection, it is clear that for those schools that have applied, the conversion process is taking longer than expected, as complex details of the  'Academy Agreements' , the funding contract between governing bodies and the government, are worked out.  John Fowler, of the Local Government Information Unit, estimates that at the current rate, it would take 140 years to convert every school to academy status. The rate is even slower for primaries. If you look at primaries alone, it would take 471 years.

But maybe governing bodies are just being prudent. It is becoming clearer by the day that there is a whacking great bribe being offered at the moment. Peter Downes, former President of the Secondary Heads Association and a Lib Dem county councillor from Cambridgeshire, whose call to arms at his party's conference last year led to an overwhelming vote against academies and free schools, has calculated that in his area converting schools are being promised £337 per primary pupil and £318 per secondary pupil annually, yet the amounts being recouped from the local authority are currently around £65 and £24 respectively. He is campaigning  robustly about the unfairness of this in Liberal Democrat circles . Key questions are: Where is the extra money coming from? Which services are losing as a result and is it sustainable?

Even the DFE is now warning that academy funding will take a hit and  must reflect both local authority cutbacks and the withdrawal of the school improvement grants that are being ‘mainstreamed’, So a sensible governing body would surely start to question whether the huge financial advantage originally anticipated will last, especially as the government is promising yet another fundamental change to school funding from 2012, possibly  based on a national formula which may wipe out the cash advantages currently being (mis)used to sell the benefits of academy status.

Until then, according to new guidance slipped out  before Christmas and lost in an avalanche of other public spending announcements, the extra cash to fund the bribes will come from a  ‘top slicing’ of all local authority general grants. As I have pointed out in my column in Guardian Education today, this means that the early converters, outstanding schools that are already serving children from largely privileged backgrounds, make a net profit, and receive short term protection from cuts that should otherwise be reflected in their budgets, at the expense of other council services like libraries and youth services that may have benefitted less advantaged young people. To add insult to injury, local authorities with few or no academies and free schools will be subject to the same top slice with no visible method for re claiming money they shouldn’t have lost in the first place.

My guess is that there will be another mega push in the next few months to try and persuade schools to convert while this extra cash is still around. The political stakes are high for the government. This policy, and the promotion of free schools, which judging by current  progress may still not exceed double figures by the end of this Parliament, is seen as a flagship. But will it work? I have my doubts . Even schools that decide to convert  now may only get these financial advantages for a few months, and the benefits set against liabilities schools must assume are not as clear as they once were. Six months ago the rush to convert may have seemed an enticing prospect. Now it looks almost reckless, while sitting tight, watching the true picture emerge, may be the sensible, as well as the principled, thing to do.
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Francis Gilbert's picture
Tue, 11/01/2011 - 18:14

I can't help having the feeling that the cuts to schools are designed to bankrupt them and then bribes are being offered to turn them into Academies. It's all very cynical. And, of course, contrary to the myths perpetuated it will mean that Whitehall will gain huge power over schools; if Academies fail the Secretary of State has the right to take them over or to order a private company to do so. Furthermore, Academies don't seem to be accountable as you say: I'm very troubled that we can't even see their budgets! I believe Peter Downes is speaking at the Anti-Academies Alliance AGM on Saturday, January 15th, 1pm to 4pm, at Canterbury Hall in Euston about this issue.

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