Education Jun 23 2010

Policy on the back of an envelope

Three cheers for Mary Gibson, the Islington head whose robust defence of her school’s community school status made headlines in her local paper earlier this month. She has taught in the North London borough of Islington for 40 years, runs an outstanding school, was awarded an MBE recently and is defiant: ’This school will become an academy over my dead body. I’m certainly not considering it. I value the co-operation between schools and the involvement with the local education authority and I would hate not to have that’

It is rumoured that the names of 1700 plus schools that don’t share her viewpoint, and have expressed an interest in being an academy, will be released shortly – thanks to FOI requests from the Anti Academies Alliance. This means parents who are currently being kept in the dark about their governors’ plans will have a chance to ask questions about what a change of status might really mean.

They will find that answers are still thin on the ground, judging by the latest Department for Education FAQs posted almost a month after the Bill’s publication, which suggest that policy is being made on the back of an envelope.

Firstly there is no sign of a model funding agreement – the commercial contract between an independent state school and the government – that spells out how the rights of parents and pupils would be protected in crucial areas like SEN, the curriculum, admissions or exclusions.

Secondly if a school’s governing body does decide to ‘convert’, the existing governing body will have to form a trust. The same people can be trustees and governors and the Department hasn’t yet decided what the constitution of an academy governing body should be or whether there should be representation from parents, staff or the wider community.

Then there is that fabled ‘extra money’. The Department’s ‘ready reckoner’, which will work out how much money each school would get if they opt out, isn’t available yet even though outstanding school governing bodies are being urged to make a decision in the next three months.

Maybe that is because it is already clear that some councils (my own included) aren’t actually holding back 10-15% in funding that could go directly to schools. The figure may be more like 2-3%, money which, if delegated, would then be spent buying back services probably at a higher cost.  Why else would the Impact Assessment that accompanies the Bill suggest that the average academy would get £275,000 pa to buy back services from ‘other providers’ that currently cost local authorities around £103,000 to supply. Hardly value for money but nice work for the private sector companies who are currently bombarding schools with offers of ‘help’ if they want to become academies.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, academies will only be guaranteed funding for the first year. Why? Because the government hasn’t decided where the 25% spending cuts will fall and also because next up on the reform agenda is a consultation on the school funding system, which will almost certainly change  to accommodate the pupil premium, with winners and losers all round– see my Guardian article two weeks ago predicting this.

The National Governors Association is calling for all its members to consult parents, with answers to the above questions freely available, before any decisions are taken. If you know a school that is considering academy status, where consultation is not being offered, let me know via comments below or contact the Anti Academies Alliance.

5 Responses to “Policy on the back of an envelope”

  1. Fiona Millar says:

    I hope you are right. However if is the case that consultation is considered desirable, it is odd that the Bill specifically lays down a new conversion process that overrides the current right to consultation about closure of the existing school. The record with the existing academies shows that parents views are either not sought or often overlooked – I was speaking at public meeting in Oxford last night organised by parents in exactly this situation. The change to academy status for their school was started a year ago, without any consultation and only now, after a sustained campaign, are their views being sought.
    It wouldn’t surprose me at all if there are governing bodies who proceed with this process and inform parents after the event. This is in fact what the Academies Section of the DFE website suggests. Although I accept that there are also many governors, like you, who will feel it is the right thing to lay the options before parents.

  2. HC says:

    I imagine a good many schools are expressing an interest in Academy status in order to have a dialogue with the department to establish the benefits, risks and downsides. As you correctly point out, there is little publically available information to discover this any other way. An expression of interest is merely that. We are certainly in this position.

    Until we can define what the pros & cons are, the Governing Body cannot decide whether they think it is a good idea, let alone offer any meaning consultation with parents or their local community. Having looked, we may well decide that it isn't appropriate for our school and progress it no further.

    There seems a leap of logic that the large number of schools having expressed an interest will progress that to conclusion in an underhand way. Whilst in all walks of life, there are some disingenuous groups, I don't believe this to be the majority or even a significant proportion. Governing Bodies up and down the country are already trusted to run their schools in the best interests of the children, staff and communities. Most will not sway from that goal.

  3. Wetnosewheatie says:

    Have you had the call from the Department an hour after pushing the button asking if you are ready to go from September???

  4. Barbara Henderson says:

    Hi Fiona, Was really pleased to read your column in today's Guardian. The governors at Berwick High School in Northumberland have “expressed an interest” in becoming an academy, without consulting parents at all. They won;t be in the 1st tranche as they're not “outstanding” but as a parent of a child who will start there in Sept, I'm very concerned about the school's future. Berwick High is the only school in the reasonable catchment area (it's on the border with Scotland which has a different system) so parents have no choice; and the governing body appears to be full. One “sponsor governor” is the failed Tory parliamentary candidate for Berwick. I would like any advice on what I can do to campaign against this move without putting my child at risk of being singled out when he starts his new school in Sept.

  5. Rebecca Hickman says:

    On the 'back of an envelope' theme… Have you read the Equalities Impact Assessment for the Academies Bill? It is extraordinary, apparently conceding that academies to date have disadvantaged girls, black pupils, pupils from mixed ethnic backgrounds and pupils with statements, when compared with the academic results of schools with similar intakes. And yet it concludes that expansion of the programme will not have a negative impact on these groups. It is difficult to see how any of this is in compliance with sections 19, 85 and 149 of the Equality Act 2010. The EHRC needs to be pressed to take this up.

Leave a Reply