We did it for the money. Survey reveals extra finances were the most popular reason for academy conversion.

Janet Downs's picture
“78 per cent of schools chose to become an academy in part because of a perception that they would receive additional funding.” This was revealed in a survey conducted by the Schools Network and Reform. When pushed, however, slightly less than four in ten heads said money was the main reason. Nevertheless, it was the most popular incentive. The remaining six in ten cited diverse reasons for conversion ranging from the rather woolly “General ethos of educational autonomy” (just over two in ten) and “General sense of financial autonomy” (one in ten) to “Flexibility over pay and conditions” (less than one in a hundred).

The survey’s results were published in a report entitled, “Plan A+: Unleashing the potential of academies”, which allegedly exploded “anti-academy myths”. The report was co-authored by the Schools Network and the think-tank, Reform, which both claim to be independent. But the Schools Network is the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust (SSAT) an organisation which hopes to support academies - a move which has attracted claims of conflict of interest. Reform is committed to “liberalising the public sector, breaking monopoly and extending choice”. Its research director, Dale Bassett, one of the authors of Plan A+, wrote in 2010 that profit-making education providers should “open their deep pockets here in England”. Bassett’s hymn of praise to academy “freedoms” in TES attracted a withering response from Sir Peter Newsam.

The authors, then, are about as independent as cocoa producers publishing a report citing the health benefits of eating a chocolate bar every day.

Nevertheless, the report contains some useful information. There’s a succinct time-line showing the changes which led to English schools being one of only four countries which gave the greatest amount of autonomy to schools by 2009 (OECD). This piece of information, however, doesn’t appear in the time-line possibly because it would detract from the report’s argument that English schools need even more autonomy in order to “innovate to raise standards”.

The report cited City Technology Colleges as pre-academy “autonomous institutions” which “received widespread criticism from vested interests.” It used a report (2007) published by SSAT itself which claimed that opponents saw CTCs as “selective”. These fears appear to have been justified. Only three of the original fifteen CTCs remain – the rest have converted to academies – and none is supposed to be selective. But only two of the CTCs/ex-CTCs had a 2011 GCSE cohort with a comprehensive intake: Djanogly City Academy and Leigh Technology Academy. The remaining thirteen had very few low-attaining pupils – down to 1% in two cases. The report praised the GCSE pass rate of “around 90%” at Harris City Technology College, Crystal Palace (now Harris City Academy). What it didn’t say is that the 2011 GCSE cohort comprised 56% high attainers, 40% middle and 4% low.

Reform/SSAT is keen on accountability and quoted OECD remarks about how pupil achievement data used for accountability purposes can improve attainment.  However, the authors disregarded OECD* advice that there was too much emphasis on raw results in England which could lead to grade inflation, teaching to the test, “gaming” and neglecting important non-cognitive skills. OECD* pointed out that accountability is more than just publishing league tables.

User choice is another buzz expression favoured in the report. It quoted research which shows user choice in education is advantageous and raises results. There is indeed much research that shows this – but there’s also a lot that shows the opposite. OECD* looked at the evidence linking user choice with education outcomes and found the evidence was “mixed”. OECD noted that some high-performing countries like Finland offer little user choice. Recent Harvard research also considered available research and concluded: “Market-based reforms such as school choice or school vouchers have, at best, a modest impact on student achievement…This suggests that competition alone is unlikely to significantly increase the efficiency of the public school system.”

The report tried very hard to show that academies are part of wide network of co-operating schools. It cited Challenge Partners as an example of such co-operation. But Challenge Partners doesn’t just comprise academies but a wide range of other types of schools. Dale Bassett, in his TES article, wrote that trailblazing schools were already “networking and collaborating on an unprecedented scale.” If they are, they’re probably not converter academies, because only 3% of them are supporting weaker schools as they are supposed to do.

Conclusion: the report from allegedly independent organizations is biased in favour of academies – its title alone demonstrates this. It refuses to acknowledge that UK schools already had a greater level of autonomy in 2009 than schools in most other countries. Instead, the authors push the idea that it is only by converting to academy status that schools can have the “freedoms” which will raise standards. But only 1.8% of heads chose opting out of the National Curriculum as the main motive for conversion. The report conceded that two fifths (39 per cent) of academies believe that the National Curriculum already allowed them sufficient freedom to innovate without the need to convert and one head said he would have made changes in any case: “Freedom from the NC is somewhat illusory when Ofsted are likely to judge us on it.”

One final thing: it’s well known that free schools don’t have to employ qualified teachers. According to the Reform/SSAT report, all academies have “full freedom over appointment of staff – except the school’s Special Educational Needs Coordinator (SENCO) and Looked After Children Lead, who must have QTS or equivalent”. This gives the lie to Mr Gove’s constant assertions about the importance of having well-trained teachers – this requirement only seems to pertain to non-academy schools.

*Chapter on English Education in OECD Economic Survey UK 2011. Not available freely on internet but details of how to obtain a copy are here.

CORRECTION 11 April 2012  The original post said that the Schools Network sponsored Priory School in Suffolk.  This was a factual error and has been removed.  We thank the Schools Network for drawing our attention to the error and apologise for the mistake.


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Ricky-Tarr's picture
Thu, 29/03/2012 - 13:15

Just spoke to a new academy principal who's getting >£400,000 extra since conversion, and is buying the services the school needs for £60,000 from.....ahem....(wait for it).... the same council that used to withhold the 400k!

Sarah's picture
Thu, 29/03/2012 - 15:42

There are a whole raft of issues tied up with that very short post of yours Ricky. First of all the £400,000 was not being 'withheld' by the local authority (very loaded language). It was being retained centrally to ensure that key services could be provided efficiently across all schools. The problem with the topslice has been that it has taken no account of the individual Academy's needs as far as those services are concerned. It might be that the funding was supporting a small number of schools in that area with very high numbers of pupils with special needs for example - schools which will now be deprived of access to that funding as the local authority becomes unable to provide services at the same level.

The very fact that this one Academy can purchase the same services it was using for £60k demonstrates that very fact - it has deprived other schools of access to £340k worth of funding. So much for schools working together to ensure the needs of all children are met!

And it completely reinforces the outcome of the survey - that schools have gone for this essentially on financial grounds. Nothing to do with 'freedom' from local authority 'control' - or any other sort of freedom except the very selfish freedom to have access to funding for itself regardless of the wider needs of children in the area.

Ricky-Tarr's picture
Thu, 29/03/2012 - 17:31


"the £400,000 was not being ‘withheld’ by the local authority (very loaded language). It was being retained centrally..."

A distinction without a difference.

"And it completely reinforces the outcome of the survey – that schools have gone for this essentially on financial grounds."

Err.... but that's absolutely NOT what the survey shows. Even the OP above makes clear that only a minority of converters cited money as their main motive.

If the instance I noted is in any way typical, it shows that schools themselves are better at procuring services and obtaining good value for money than councils are. Chances are that 80% of the money you say other schools have been 'deprived of' will have been creamed off to pay the salaries and pensions of bureaucrats. The academy system at least allows schools to receive every penny that Parliament has voted for their pupils' education, instead of allowing it to be creamed off to sustain a bunch of incompetent wastrels.

A guest's picture
Thu, 29/03/2012 - 18:53

One of the problems Ricky is that we cannot see what Academies and free schools are spending their money on.

howard's picture
Thu, 29/03/2012 - 20:26

"If the instance I noted is in any way typical, it shows that schools themselves are better at procuring services and obtaining good value for money than councils are."
This is one explanation but not the only one. As the amount withheld by the Council is essentially based on a flat rate per pupil and does not reflect an individual school's use of the services the Council provides, the saving made by this academy could simply be because it actually makes little use of these services and the new costs now reflect its actual usage. If the academy's usage of the Council's services had been higher than average, it could have ended up paying more!

Sarah's picture
Sat, 31/03/2012 - 00:50

It most certainly does not demonstrate that schools are better at procuring than local authorities are - it shows that they are being given more money to purchase the same services at the same cost from the same provider. 'Chances are'? you will have to do much better than that to evidence that any funding has been 'creamed off' by bureaucrats that isn't now being 'creamed off' in some other way via academy sponsors overheads etc. There is absolutely no evidence to suggest that any more money is reaching pupils this way - it may be that it's reaching different pupils for sure.

Ricky-Tarr's picture
Mon, 02/04/2012 - 08:25


Why? 80% is the rule of thumb figure most public sector organizations use for the proportion of income spent on staff costs.

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