Education Jan 11 2011

Academy ‘spin’ not quite as it seems

So the Tory government’s academy movement has apparently reached a ‘’tipping point’. Well not quite. Unlike many  friends and colleagues, I thought last week’s announcement about the apparently extraordinary number of academies opened since the General Election smacked more of mild desperation rather that triumph.

Isn’t it only six months since there were going to be almost 2000 academies? Now there are just over 400 – 1.7 %  of all 23,000 schools in England, not 10% as was lazily reported by some papers and the BBC,  so hardly a tipping point. No wonder Michael Gove needed to call on his right wing cronies at the Spectator to spin the ‘facts’.

And look at the figures. Of these 407 schools 203 were opened by Labour before the last general election with a further 68 academies already in the pipeline, started by Labour but opened after the election.

The number of academy conversions since the election, without the existing Labour projects, is actually 136. Given that 1900 schoools expressed an interest, that suggests that many heads and governors have looked at the costs and benefits and had a second thought.  Many of the early converters were existing foundation or grammar schools and mostly secondaries. It also points to the conversion process taking much longer than was anticipated. Since the election the Department has had over 300 applications for academy status but only seems to be processing around 40 academy orders ( the directive that allows to the government to order a local authority to cease funding a maintained school) a month.  At this rate it would take around 50 years for all maintained schools in England to simply request to become an Academy.

And the actual conversion rate is even slower – in the month of November last year only 14 schools were actually ‘converted’ – which already means a backlog of schools waiting to go through the final hurdle to academy status. That final hurdle, the commercial contract between the Secretary of State for Education and the school known as the Academy Agreement,  seems to be problematic, presumably because that is where governors , the LA and the DFE get down to the nitty gritty, with some difficult  consultations with local communities thrown in. If the conversion rate continues at the current pace, it will take 140 years for all schools to convert to academy status. If the current slower rate for primary schools continues, it would take 471 years to convert every primary.

Moreover all is not as it seems in the funding of academies – there are already signs that many of the early converters (mostly outstanding schools) have been actually making a net profit and receiving more money than they are due to cover the costs of funding the council services they lose. In other words they are getting a bribe and this is in spite of the government’s repeated claim that no school should receive a financial advantage or disadvantage by converting to academy status.

Peter Downes, former President of the Secondary Heads Association and a Lib Dem county councillor from Cambridgeshire, whose call to arms at his party’s conference last year led to an overwhelming vote against academies and free schools, has calculated that in his area converting schools are being promised £337 per primary pupil and £318 per secondary pupil annually, yet the amounts being recouped from the local authority are currently around £65 and £24 respectively. He is campaigning  robustly on the unfairness of this in Liberal Democrat circles . Key questions are; where is the extra money coming from? Which services are losing as a result and is it sustainable?

Even the DFE is now warning that academy funding will take a hit and  must reflect both local authority cutbacks and the withdrawal of the school improvement grants that are being ‘mainstreamed’, So a sensible governing body may well be asking if the massive financial advantage they originally anticipated will be there in the long run, especially as the government is promising yet another fundamental change to school funding from 2012, possibly  based on a national formula which may wipe out the cash advantages currently being (mis)used to sell the benefits of academy status.

Until then, according to new guidance slipped out  before Christmas and lost in an avalanche of other public spending announcements, the extra cash to fund the bribes will come from a  ‘top slicing’ of all local authority general grants. As I have pointed out in my column in Guardian Education today, this means that the early converters, outstanding schools that are already serving children from largely privileged backgrounds, make a net profit, and receive protection from cuts that should otherwise be reflected in their budgets, at the expense of other council services like libraries and youth services that may have benefitted less advantaged young people. To add insult to injury, local authorities with few or no academies and free schools will be subject to the same top slice with no visible method for re claiming money they shouldn’t have lost in the first place.

Gove and the Tories have set great store by this policy and that of opening hundreds of free schools, the numbers of which,  if current progress is anything to go by, will be even lower and possibly still be in two figures by the end of this Parliament. So the political stakes are high and it is hardly surprising that every trick in the book will be used to lure schools into converting, and forcing free schools into areas where they may not even be needed.

As time ticks by, the long term benefits set against liabilities schools must assume are not as clear as they once were. Six months ago the rush to convert may have seemed an enticing prospect. Now it looks almost reckless, while sitting tight with the local authority, watching the true picture emerge, may be the sensible, as well as the principled, thing to do.

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