All Schools must become academies… U turn or not?
Despite the change of Government policy, we consider the reasons why it is likely that academisation will continue to accelerate.
The academies programme has undoubtedly been through a rollercoaster ride over the last few months.
Readers will be aware that the Chancellor announced all state funded schools would become academies in the budget and the DfE's white paper Education Excellence Everywhere was released the following day confirming this and briefly outlining what the new system might look like.
In addition to the existing triggers for academy orders for maintained schools the white paper outlined three new triggers for academy orders to achieve total academisation:
- Academy Orders for all Schools in LAs which are not financially viable
- Academies Orders for all Schools in under performing LAs
- Academies Orders for all Schools not already in the process in 2020
In a press release on 6 May 2016 the DfE stated that "the government has decided, while reaffirming our continued determination to see all schools to become academies in the next 6 years, that it is not necessary to bring legislation to bring about blanket conversion of all schools to achieve this goal". This effectively removes the third new trigger.
Is this a U turn? It certainly sounds like it. However, the government clearly still wants 100% academisation so how might they achieve it and where does that leave us?
On a simple level it leaves us with the current regime of conversion by choice, forced sponsored conversions and coasting conversions with the two remaining new triggers expected to be announced in legislation in the Queens Speech on 18 May.
There were three main arguments put forward against the total academisation idea, which I have summarised here and commented on how these may have contributed to dropping the third trigger and how the Government's system might still result in full academisation in due course:
a) There is no proof that academisation drives up standards so what is the point?
There has been a glut of rhetoric from both sides on this point and an occasional statistic thrown into the mix. Logically it is fair to say that the very highest performing school is unlikely to improve its own outcomes by converting to academy status.
However, now the programme seems to be being refocused towards the weakest performing schools again rather than all schools it is reasonable to expect that those schools will show some improvement. The weakest schools should in theory be the "easiest wins". Such improvement might not happen immediately on conversion, it might not happen with the first academy sponsor appointed to take it on, but as the system will keep moving a school around sponsors until it does show an improvement then the new system should in theory show systemic improvement over the next few years. If reliable statistics can be created to demonstrate a systemic improvement then the argument for full academisation would be improved.
b) Smaller schools particularly in rural areas cannot afford academisation
The academy trust model means each Trust must have a positive balance sheet and be solvent at all times. It's easy to see on finances alone that a small school is unlikely to be able to convert and form its own single academy trust.
There is much more to this point than simply assuming the school can therefore stay as a local authority school. It is widely recognised by school headteachers and business managers that all schools are facing significant increases in costs in the next few years and for many schools doing nothing will not be enough. Assuming that Government and Local Authorities do not significantly increase funding for schools this pressure itself is already forcing, and will continue to force, many schools to look at their options and plan for the future.
Collaborations to share non-teaching functions and achieve some economies of scale on procurement of costly items in order to save costs may be a more popular choice than the last gasp alternative of cutting teaching and teaching assistant posts. Multi model academy status would most likely be high on the list of options for such schools.
c) Good schools in good LAs should not be required to convert
It would be hard to try and argue against the logic of this, so perhaps this is one of the main reasons that the government has dropped the requirement for legislation to require all schools to convert.
Dropping the third trigger may well keep LAs running schools in some areas.
Alternatively we may see some new carrot being offered by the DfE to encourage conversion as well as the stick. Already school improvement is firmly being directed at academies. Again financial aspects are a key driving force and there are still opportunities for making some money from school improvement activities. Senior leaders who want to deliver educational excellence everywhere and bring in money to their institution may have to convert to academy status anyway.
Some of the above is speculation, but it does seem likely that if not 100% academisation the programme is likely to accelerate. Couple this with "coasting schools" which already has the potential for quite far reaching impact and the more schools that do convert the more likely it is that the two new triggers will be exercised leading to majority if not total academisation.
We have recently run events for maintained schools and academies on this subject.
Please contact us for a synopsis of the event and a free discussion about your school and the options that you are considering.
If you would like to discuss any aspect of this article further, please contact Tim Wrigley on 0113 244 6100.
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The information in this article is necessarily of a general nature. Specific advice should be sought for specific situations. If you have any queries or need any legal advice please feel free to contact Wrigleys Solicitors
11 May 2016