There is no U-Turn on Academies. It is a matter of performance management.

Anyone believing that Nicky Morgan’s recent announcement of the government’s decision to no longer force acadamisation on the very best performing schools amounted to anything more substantial than a pause for breath, must have read no further than the hyperbolic headlines. She spoke very clearly of her reaffirmation of commitment to see all schools become academies.

There is more than one route to such an outcome and much at the government’s disposal to ensure their aim is achieved.

At a time when the Tory party is subject to in-house fighting over next month’s referendum on Europe and thus the whip’s powers of persuasion are already invested elsewhere, Morgan and the Chancellor’s decision to make such announcement in March’s Budget was in poorly timed. Better would have been to have waited until the Autumn Statement when discipline may have been restored and when it may be that Morgan announces the definitions of how the DfE are to measure ‘performance’.

The depth and breadth of the  post 2010 cuts to Local Authority budgets is likely to continue apace and with it LA’s capacity to provide the services schools need. Schools over the past 6 years have converted for many reasons but the main driver was not an ideological one rather it was an economic decision; their LA’s had not the funds to adequately service them, a point made by Paul Luxmoore executive head of the Coastal Academies Trust.
Add in the fact that LA’s have less scope to cross subsidise the primary schools due to the circa 60% of secondary schools who have already converted and thus taken the lion’s share of that funding with them and the writing is on the wall for those who refuse to accept the reality of the situation.
Those schools which hang on are likely to be in receipt of a poorer LA service and they further endanger themselves of having a reduced opportunity to choose whom to partner with and thus less room for negotiation over vital issues such as their chosen governance structure.

Schools who have accepted their plight are now considering how best to protect their assets be they Ofsted or equally important their built ones. If the school has a good or an outstanding Ofsted rating and if its facilities are in good repair they have greater strength from which to negotiate.
The White Paper also signalled the governments intent to reduce schools options for achieving Foundation status which would provide the school with greater legal standing with regards its freehold rather than leasehold status. Again those schools who are aware of this change are redoubling their efforts to secure that status before the option is removed.

The advantage of being pro-active and grasping the nettle no matter how painful may result in the vital difference of helping form the governance structure the school wishes to work under or having that structure thrust upon them.

Primary schools need to consider whether they want a horizontal or vertical relationship. Do they see their future within a pyramid and possibly feel the junior partner to the secondary school or are they happy to take their chances on the level playing field with other local primary schools whom they could be in direct completion with for attracting pupils and essential funds?

Whichever option they ultimately select, all schools will want to ensure their own needs are met and are not subservient to the dominant party exercising their power on the Trust’s board. This fear is real and has been recognised as one of the numerous reasons for why there has been such a relatively small number of primary school conversions.

The governments policy as announced in the White Paper made provision for the continuation of high performing schools to become academies. Last month saw the highest ever recorded number of schools applying to transfer and this trajectory is likely to continue apace.

Government policy continues to implement measures that will ensure schools deemed inadequate will become sponsored academies. Again, last month alone saw some 100 schools categorised as inadequate and once the official definition of ‘coasting’ is published that number will rise sharply.

Central government will continue its policy of reducing LA remit over what remains of their grant maintained schools and will direct schools to become academies in underperforming local authorities or where the LA no longer has the capacity to maintain its schools or where schools have not put in place a conversion plan by 2020.

It is the government’s prerogative to determine the number of outstanding definitions such as how to measure ‘under-performance’ or what the criteria will be for adjudicating when it is no longer’ viable’ for a LA to continue providing grant maintained places or indeed what is meant by the nebulous term ‘coasting’?

It is precisely how these definitions are defined that will set the parameters and indices as to the pace by which the acadamisation will continue, not whether it will, but how quickly it will.

For example, the think tank CentreForum have calculated that ‘performance’ could be defined by the proportion of schools rated as requiring improvement or the proportion of pupils not achieving expected progress and however, the definition of ‘coasting’ is ultimately measured.

Another possible form of measurement could be a LA is ‘under-performing’ if the performance of its maintained schools at either key stage 2 or key stage 4 falls below the national average.

A large number of such schools are below the national average and the proposed attainment level established for a definition of ‘coasting’.
With the forthcoming introduction of new tougher assessments for key stage 2 and 4 and new GCSE’s the attainment levels will be even more difficult to reach. 53 LA’s key stage 2 results would be below average and 86 LA’s would fail the key stage 4 average benchmark.

One definition of ‘unviable’ could be determined if less than 50% of pupils in the area attend LA maintained schools. Given what was stated above in that 60% of the secondary schools have already converted the LA cannot cross subsidise the 85% of primary schools that have remained for very much longer. If this indices was used it would mean 52 LA’s would be categorised as ‘unviable’

122 of the 152 LA’s would fail at least one of the above criteria and would amount to 12,000 of the 15,000 LA schools not currently in the academy conversion pipeline. Of the remaining 3,000 schools, two thirds are Ofsted rated as good or outstanding and thus free to convert. 

All of this ignores the obvious fact that many schools are electing to become academies without being ‘forced’ or covertly manipulated. Their self-determination will also affect the chances of those wishing to remain under LA system as the LA will meet the ‘unviable’ criteria of reaching 50% of pupils who attend academy schools.

Given the combination of elected conversion rates and the current performance of schools who are not meeting the government’s national average rates it would appear that the stated target of seeing all schools as academies by 2022 is well within its grasp.

Once the government announce their definitions as to performance of schools and viability of LA’s it will become much clearer as to the likely timeline.

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