Tipping point for academies and the whole school system

06 May 2011

The following is the main text of my speech at the Academy Network conference in Birmingham on May 5th 2011 www.academynetwork.co.uk/

Just before Easter I wrote in my Education Guardian column about how this was something of a landmark moment for academies.

 For while the teacher union conferences were busy condemning academy conversions, up and down the country school governors were (I guessed – and subsequent correspondence suggested I was right) pondering whether or not to take the leap and convert.

 One school governor wrote to me to say they were indeed ‘agonising’ over the issue over the holidays in order to make a decision before the end of the summer and before the current financial offer runs out.

 That governor told me the Church of England has suddenly decided that academy conversion is the only way to go and is advising its voluntary-aided schools to do so as a matter of urgency.  

 As this particular chair of governors concluded - in her area at least - the decision to convert was looking like a ‘no brainer’ and she expected all local schools to go that way by the autumn.

 Looking more widely, a recent survey by the Association of School and College Leaders in April showed that almost half of all secondary schools had either converted or were actively considering doing so.

 A further 34% were undecided (and that’s probably changed just in the last month or so) and only 19% remained defiantly against the change.

  So why are so many taking this route? In most cases, it has to be said, it’s not ideology, but pragmatism.

  In the ASCL survey, of those considering change, 73% believed it would help them financially. And, as we know, with much tougher economic times now upon us, this is an even more important consideration than usual.

 For many large secondary schools the financial cushion that academy conversion offers is substantial – even if it may not last much beyond the first year.

 Warwick Mansell had an interesting piece in The Education Guardian the other day that gave some detailed case studies of how some schools were hundreds of thousands of pounds better off by becoming academies.

 This confirms the picture I’ve also been getting from schools I’ve visited.

 As Warwick wrote, the money schools are getting to replace their share of central  funding for services such as behaviour support, school improvement, and administration – the LACSEG or local authority spend equivalent grant (to give it its full catchy name)  - is in most cases worth more than they are spending out to replace those services.

 In part that’s because some of those services are now coming from the YPLA. And in part it’s because many schools do not have great need for some of the services they were previously paying for.

 This is particularly true for ‘outstanding’ schools and those which - because of their student composition  - do not have great need for services such as behaviour support or welfare and truancy backup.

 So, I think we are now at a tipping point when all but the most reluctant will feel unable to resist the tide (if that’s not mixing my metaphors too much).

 Once several large secondary schools in an area have converted, taking their share of central budgets, what capability will local authorities have left to support schools that remain with them?

 It has to be said that many primary heads are enthusiasts for academy freedoms – but many are not. But they feel they may be left with no choice.

 So, here we are, just one year on from the General Election (voting was a year ago to this day – a year is a long time in politics!).

 And, for all the talk from Michael Gove, about ending central direction and leaving policy to individual schools, the fact is that he has pulled some critical levers and the whole system is moving in the direction he wants.

  He may not be fat…but he is certainly the controller.

 And make no mistake about the enormity of this change. It is easy to under-estimate what is happening, in part because it builds on what has been happening steadily ever since the 1988 Act started to give schools greater autonomy over budgets and other decision-making.  

 The shift to school autonomy has been mostly welcome and has been incremental.

 But now we are, as I say, at a pivotal moment. This is nothing short of the dismantling of the 1944 Education Act, which set up a ‘national system locally administered’.

 And while Local authorities retain certain important roles in law, there must be a real question about their future ability to fulfil that role.

 That is particularly worrying for those schools that are big users of central services such as behaviour support or school improvement.

 But for all schools the future now looks like one in which the school/LA relationship will be replaced by school-to-school relationships.

  That might happen within federations. Or it may be within school groups, under a particular brand, as I am sure we are going to see the steady growth of school chains like ARK, E-ACT or The Harris Federation.

 We may also see more vertical federations as primary schools look to their secondary neighbours to fulfil some of the role of the former LA.

 Schools will buy support packages from other schools or school groups.

 Education departments as such will cease to disappear in may local authorities. 

 In their place there will be many more education service companies and organisations offering targeted support and functions.

 To get the best out of their purchasing power, schools will need to operate jointly or in groups to coordinate their finances and to achieve better deals.

  How will that be done: there are lots of solutions - joint bursars, executive heads, shared procurement committees – and they will vary across the country, according to circumstances?

 And, just as universities are finding in Higher Education, one solution to financial hardship will be to develop more shared services for everything from catering and payroll to HR support and specialist services like Ed Psychs and behaviour Support.

 And – legally, of course – academies are the same as independent schools. That might feel a bit odd for those of you who’ve spent your professional lives in the state sector.

 But it should not be too odd. An academy is in effect a mid-sized corporate or charitable legal entity, and that should be familiar to governors who’ve worked in any substantial organisation outside the public sector.

  Conversion also cuts the ties with LAs, although most councils are still permitting academies to pay for services if they want them, although they are under no obligation to provide them anymore.

  There are many other issues, I know, which you may want to know more about: from pensions to employment laws, legal requirements to auditing practices.

  And hopefully today you’ll get the answers you need.

 In conclusion then, it’s a brave new world we’re entering.

 Personally I feel many schools will thrive on it. But I also fear there will be casualties.

 And there is a question about who will be there to monitor schools to catch them before they fall too far.

 I think there is a real risk that the school system will become more fragmented and disparate….and probably more unequal.

 School leaderships are quite right to do what is best for their own institution – but I do worry about the bigger picture.

 There are some likely flash points ahead too – perhaps the most obvious being over national pay and conditions, something the unions are determined to protect, despite Lord Hill’s recent insistence that the ability to set pay and conditions for staff is one of the key autonomies for academies.

 So, all in all, there’s a lot of questions for us to discuss today.

 How can schools or federations work together to get the best support services that are out there?

 How will they need to change their own structures to fit this new world?

 What reassurances should they be giving to their staff, parents and students?

 Can they go it alone or should they be looking for the support of federation or seek to be part of a well-know school chain brand?

 You have the privilege and the pleasure of leading schools in what the Chinese would call ‘interesting’ times.

 I’m sure they’re going to be exciting times. And challenging times.

 You’ll need to innovate and to adapt…even more than you no doubt do already.

 But – hopefully – you’ll leave here today with some valuable advice, some good new contacts, and with the fellow feeling of a problem shared.


User Comments

John Connor - 06 May 2011

Academy conversions

If I read you correctly, Mike, you describe a situation where local authorities disappear only to be replaced with something that looks a lot like a local authority - schools grouping together the share functions and achieve economies of scale. And the only oversight, apparently, is the Secretary of State? Will (s)he deal directly with procurement, payroll, competency, child protection, SEN, Looked-after children and disciplinary issues? By him/herself? Does the DfE have to capacity to oversee 81% of the nation's schools directly from Sanctuary House? I rather doubt it. They may be exciting times, but the potential for collateral damage is enormous, and the casualties won't get a second chance. I think you're absolutely right about heads' pragmatism, but the wider picture is that of generations sacrificed on the altar of a highly dubious ideology at the whim of one individual. As one colleague put it recently "We have a Cameronesque gloss put on to a Thatcherite undercoat with Nick Clegg as the paintbrush." (acknowledgements to "pencil and paper test")You are right to be worried about the bigger picture - this is a dismantling of state education that very few voted for.

DaveB - 06 May 2011

Cherry-picking again?

Hi Mike,
Great post. What you say about this change particularly suiting the better-off schools makes me wonder - is this situation analogous to the 'cherry-picking' phenomenon when other public services become decentralised and/or privatised? Which is to say, that the first bits to leave the centralised public sector are the most profitable (or in this case, those with lowest support costs). This leaves all the most expensive stuff to the state, as the better-off are no longer subsidising the rest.

Catherine Allan - 06 May 2011

Size of school is key

Hi Mike, great points. I also think that size of school will be a very important sticking point for academy conversions.
Down the road if all schools convert to academies, of course it will make sense for schools to band together in federations to maximise buying power, economies of scale, etc. But in the short term, smaller schools are looking at the idea of becoming an academy very cautiously. For a small school to convert would be a leap of faith as they would need to keep going while access to support and potential partners evolves.
For some it’s just not economically viable to consider converting without there being a network of affordable support services already in place.
Maybe we’ll see two waves of conversions. Wave one will be the larger schools. Wave two will be smaller schools, who will then be able to buy into services provided by larger academies, which converted earlier on
Here at The Key we recently surveyed our members and found that schools with over 400 pupils were much more likely consider academy status than those with fewer pupils. The accompanying comments from school leaders in small schools focussed on the financial viability (or not) of becoming an academy.

PKirkbride - 06 May 2011

How will funding disappear?

Mike, you comment that "the financial cushion that academy conversion offers is substantial – even if it may not last much beyond the first year".
Are you saying that the top slice returned to academy schools from LAs will be whittled away? Or, are you suggesting that further cuts in pupil funding will erode and in time negate the initial financial benefits of conversion?
If it is the latter, then surely converting schools will still be financially better off than non-converters who will have to absorb funding cuts without the top slice?

KevinG - 09 May 2011

Academies conversion

Balanced set of arguments but the main reason for us not converting was not alluded to. It is the thorny issue of capital funding. With an old crumbling building in an inner-city area with absolutely no space to expand - it is the worry for example of needing to replace one of our four old boilers at £M1/4 a time that stops us grabbing the Gove shilling.
However perhaps this is just us being naive? - if we are the last school standing as a non-academy within our small LA - will the LA actually have any money left to rescue us in our seemingly constant appeal for emergency capital injections....

Rebecca Hanson - 18 May 2011

Academies and the cost of busses

At a teachers meeting in a rural area last week, schools going through the process of conversion to academy status seem to be strongly affected, financially, by whether or not most of their students live more than 3 miles from the school.

It seems the money a school receives has to cover this but doesn't take into account how much it actually costs. So whether or not it is financially beneficial to convert to academy status or not may simply depend on whether your school is an urban or a rural area.

This was all just gossip. If anyone's got some clear, referencable information on this I'd be very interested.


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