How To Become An Academy
It has been about a year since New Labour’s academies initiative transitioned into the Conservative academies programme, which originally set out to assist struggling schools but has since become more focused on autonomy for successful schools, including primary schools. The programme’s original architect, Lord Adonis, is penning a book, titled "Academies and the Transformation of English Education," whilst Michael Gove continues to encourage more schools to convert, with 384 schools having altered their status over the past year alone. Some 650 schools have been granted approval for academy status and are working to organise the admin necessary to make the transition. Despite this, there is still a sense of anxiety over the amount of red tape that comes with the process, with concerns that the conversion process may become too burdensome for schools that do not have the capacity or confidence to cope, which could ultimately benefit private companies who may take the strain off their hands for a fee.
So, what do the schools that have already converted into academies have to say about the experience since September 2010? What are their top tips? The pioneers of academy status, the headteachers who sought approval as soon as it was available and were successful, say that they immediately hired specialists due to the extensive demands of the conversion process. For example, Jan Hatherall, Headteacher of Hardenhuish school in Wiltshire, employed lawyers the day after approval, while the Headteacher of Durand academy in Lambeth, Greg Martin, engaged the services of "a communications agency and property and TUPE [specialist employment] lawyers." However, there are several myths regarding conversion costs, claim the academic heads, such as Stephen Davis, Deputy Head of Lampton academy in Hounslow, who reported that schools receive £25,000 to cover conversion costs. Even a colleague with no experience in Brent ensured that their conversion was completed for less than £10,000 by employing the same solicitors as Lampton.
But too much fuss has been made about the difficulty of the paperwork required, argues Jim McAtear, Headteacher of Hartismere School in Suffolk. He has scrutinised the legal requirements, deciding that a DIY approach is more than feasible. "The way the DfE has set up the process actually strengthens the infrastructure of those schools," he added. During the conversion process, a considerable number of inquiries might arise regarding each school’s unique circumstances, and Hatherall asserts that her school’s DfE adviser provided "outstanding" support. However, with more schools looking to convert, such services may become less effective. Therefore, schools interested in conversion can learn from the experiences of those who have already gone through the process.
For these pioneer headteachers, the inspiration to forge ahead and convert seems to have been fuelled by dissatisfaction and frustration with the local authority’s provided services. The money that the academies have been able to retrieve between 8% and 14% of their overall budget is the primary reason that all the headteachers cite for opting for academy status. This money has enabled them to quickly bring professional specialists into the school, which, in turn, has prevented vulnerable children and distressed students from falling behind academically.
These new academies have obtained substantial funding. Warren Harrison, the headteacher of the first school in the UK to convert, The Premier Academy in Milton Keynes, has been allotted £330,000 extra to work with, which is 13% of his school’s budget. This extra funding has enabled Harrison to increase staffing levels, extend payscales so that high-performing teachers can choose to remain in the classroom rather than move into management, and even employ a dedicated social worker to ensure that children with social and educational needs receive complete continuity of care. This was not readily available via the local authority’s social work team.
"We probably don’t get things cheaper, but we can move faster," Harrison says. "The enhanced funding allows us to purchase services that provide us with the best value for money, including those offered by our local authority, but we will not be confined, having a single provider who can monopolise a service without regard for its quality or cost."
According to a report, academy conversions in the UK have resulted in potentially large financial risks and the need for more financial responsibility. Some schools were unable to retain VAT because of a policy unclarity, leading to a financial setback. Additionally, some heads had to assume the liability of non-teaching staff pensions. The transfer of the local government pension scheme and conversion to academies also entail significant financial risks. There is a steep learning curve when it comes to financially managing schools, but many schools have sought guidance from external companies. Despite fears of increased costs, many private companies have offered more competitive services to schools. Converting to an academy is not an automatic choice and schools need to assess their local context and capacity before making the decision. Finally, schools need to look at their situation and the improvements made before choosing to convert into an academy.