Academies: The conclusion

By Megan Caulfield

When Sarah Barton sent her children to Bournville School and Sixth Form Centre, she felt content in the knowledge that her son and daughter would receive a solid, state education in a happy and successful community school. The South Birmingham school, served a diverse community, teaching the national curriculum under the watchful and safe eyes of the local authority.

Naturally, things have changed since her daughter, now 17, first started; Teachers have left, qualifications have reportedly got harder, but still, no one could imagine the day when the curriculum was scrapped and the teachers no longer had to be qualified. Where the school would be independent of local authority funding and have the potential to be sponsored by the likes of Oasis and JCB. And then that time came. Bournville School was going to be turned into an academy.

“I’d heard a bit about academies in the news but not enough to freely be able to talk about them,” Sarah said. “It was only when the Headteacher at Bournville discussed his plans to turn the school into an academy that I started to take notice,”

“The government tries to highlight the fact it improves education and that academies are more successful than state schools but that’s really not the case at all. I can’t see any positives about the whole thing. I knew I had to do something.”

Cue the development of Hands Off Our School. Hands Off Our School is a parent-led campaign against academy conversion at Bournville School. Similar to that of many up and down the country, the campaign is calling for Headteachers, the Government and the Department For Education to rethink the choice to convert to an academy and to stop the rumoured forced conversions by Michael Gove.

In this particular case, Hands Off Our School was successful and managed to stop the conversion which Sarah puts down to “having a wide range of people passionately, committed to saving Bournville school including parents, teaching staff and members of the community.”  Many others however, have been unsuccessful in their attempts and have faced numerous difficulties in their struggle to reach the decision makers.

The number of similar campaigns appears to be on the rise thanks to the increasing popularity of government backed academies.  As of May 1st, there were 2,924 academies open in the UK, which makes up more than a quarter of all schools. Academies even appear to be replacing state education; with the most recent statistics revealing that 59% of secondary schools have either already converted or are in the process of.

So just what are academies?

According to The Guardian, academies are, “state-maintained independent schools set up with the help of outside sponsors.”

They receive their funding directly from the central government, rather than through a local authority and have more freedom over their finances, curriculum, length of terms and school days.

Originally introduced by the Labour government in 2007, their declared aims were to improve struggling schools in disadvantaged areas. The coalition has since developed the idea and now any school can apply to change to academy status.

Why are people so against them?

The lack of certainty surrounding the effectiveness of an academy seems to be one of the biggest issues amongst parents and teachers. Few people have experienced academies over a long period of time so it is hard to see the lasting benefits to the education system. Many parents aren’t even aware what an academy is, as expressed by Karen Hall, a parent whose child’s school has gone through a conversion to become North Birmingham Academy. She said,

“I’ll be honest I didn’t have a clue what an academy was when the idea was first introduced to parents. I had to do a lot of googling and used mumsnet to see if I was the only one – I wasn’t, there were loads of parents in exactly the same position which made me feel better about the situation.”

“I do think the government and schools could do more to inform parents of what an academy is, so that we can make the transition for our children from a normal school to an academy much easier and effective.”

Sarah Barton added, “A lot of schools plan the conversion in secret and give parents absolutely no say in what is happening. It’s shocking to think that they can make such a big decision without even consulting parents beforehand or asking our views.”

Another key argument against the trend of conversion is that people are viewing the rise in academies as the privatisation of schools. Privatisation involves giving the rights to the school to independent parties resulting in the school having no accountability with the community or its leading figures.

Bournville School, had a 125 year lease that was in jeopardy – one of the reasons why the community united and worked so strongly against the schools plans to convert.

Companies from the likes of America and Sweden are coming to the UK purely to make a profit out of our previously local authority funded education system. Memos by the Education Secretary Michael Gove, which have been leaked, suggest this is the way he sees UK schools developing, causing further concern to those opposing the idea.

Bullying Tactics

It has also been alleged that Gove has used bullying tactics in his efforts to get more schools to convert. Ask Parents First, an anti academy campaign based in and around Birmingham, claim they have heard from many sources that,

“The DFE sends in an academy broker and threatens the governing body into becoming an academy, telling them if they do not become an academy then they will be sacked and replaced by a sponsor and governing body picked by Gove.”

Foundry Primary School in Birmingham spoke out to confirm this goes on. The Headteacher revealed that he was bullied into becoming an academy and then denied the school’s first choice of sponsor, Wolverhampton University, despite it being on Michael Gove’s approved sponsors list. They were told they must pick out of a list of three which included retail brand Oasis, a company who has no prior background or ties with education and schools.

Effect on the local authority

The rise in academies has also had a detrimental effect on the local authority, who have seen a big decline due to government cuts. The LA in Birmingham, have seen a team of 100 advisory teachers supporting 400 schools, shrink to just 8 people, placing a big strain on teaching staff and reducing the support available.

Six of the biggest teaching unions in Britain (including NASUWT and NUT) have united against the academy system in a joint campaign to halt school conversions across the country.

In a letter addressed to parents by the union’s joint general secretary, they emphasise the risks, and the “profound implications for the children” that academies will surely bring. They appeal to the parents,

“We hope that having considered the information you will share our views that the high level of risk involved in academy status far outweighs any of the suggested advantages. The decision to become an academy is irreversible. There is no going back.”

The National Union of Teachers has spoke out directly to say they believe, “academies have a damaging impact on children’s teachers and the whole community.”

They add that, “Teaching support staff are also often not recognised within the new pay structure academies have to negotiate, which affects the children who need that support in the long run.”

The Benefits of the Programme

Of course this is just the view of a percentage of people. A proportion of parents, teachers and government figures are also encouraging academy conversions and see it as a way to improve the education system by giving schools more freedom to innovate.

Painsley Academy in North Staffordshire received academy status last August. At the same time it also achieved a record-breaking 100% of year 11 students receiving grades A*-C in their GCSE’s.

Painsley shared the achievement with its six Catholic feeder schools. The seven schools work together as a ‘federation’ to help with finances, resources and services – sharing the title of ‘Academy’.

Veronica Johnston Jones, an academy committee member there, says it was decided that the academy status would be a positive step for the federation.

“At this point we had worked as a hard federation of schools for just over a year and had experienced the benefits that this formal level of co-operation was bringing to the lives of the schools though the educational experience and achievement of the learners”.

“Academy status would enable the schools to continue on this path with greater pace, as a result of a new level of independence and flexibility and greater revenue.”

Ms Jones also added that greater freedom to govern, and a smoother system of funding, is paramount for future progress in the schools.

“Greater freedoms to innovate and increased revenues are making a positive impact on the schools in terms of buildings, the learning environment and resources including staffing,” she said. “This in turn is having a clear and measurable effect on further raising standards and outcomes for our learners.”

This is something echoed by parent Karen Hall, who spoke of the benefits of her child’s school being an academy. “My child’s school, College High, used to have a bit of a bad reputation, but since converting, it has really improved both academically and physically in the form of new buildings and equipment.”

“I can only see the benefits of becoming an academy -the Headteacher has received an MBE, people are getting good university places. I would say the school, (now North Birmingham Academy), has probably been saved by the conversion.”

Karen and Ms Jones are not the only people who feel this way. 86% percent of schools have seen the benefit of academies with the percentage receiving an ‘outstanding’ or ‘very good’ recommendation in their latest Ofsted report. This improvement is twice the rate of a normal school, something The Department For Education and Gove are keen to emphasise.

Lesley Smith of Ark Schools, an academy sponsor with over 18 schools around the country, sees the benefit of academies and said, “Since sponsoring some of the schools we have seen a real improvement in the general running of them.”

“For us, academies are a way to improve the education system by providing a better learning environment through adapting the curriculum and enriching our pupils with a great approach to learning and developing.”

“Our longer school day provides more time to embed core subjects and to extend the curriculum, and our excellent teachers help support this. The results are clear from our last Ofsted report, with nine of the ten ARK academies so far inspected rated as good or outstanding.”

This is true of their school Kings Academy, which has seen the percentage of students achieving five or more A*-Cs at GCSE including English and maths, jump by more than 20 per cent in two years.

Driving Force

Michael Gove has been the biggest driving force in the academy movement. He is often seen in the media promoting the benefits of the programme, encouraging what he believes is a better education system. One of his biggest arguments is that it provides more freedom to teachers.

“We believe in trusting the professionals. That’s why we gave teachers the opportunity to take on more freedom and responsibility and they have grabbed it with both hands. Many are now going even further and taking on responsibility for turning around less successful schools,” he recently said.

Final Outlook

Whether you are opposing or agreeing with the academy movement, there is no denying that academies have created a strong debate within the education system. 16 year old Erin Geraty, a pupil going through a conversion sums it up, “you are always going to get groups that agree or disagree, that’s life, all that matters at the end of the day is that we, the pupils, get a good education so we can go on to get a good job, and lead a happy and fulfilling life.”

Supply teacher sees Academies as “positive change”

I met with Anne Malkin who is a supply teacher in the Staffordshire area to gain her perspective on the differences between schools that have become academies and those that are yet to change.

Anne teaches in a number of schools in the Staffordshire area and observes that there are significant differences between the ways that an academy functions compared to a normal state school.

“The most significant differences are the way that staff  work across the academies. They are constantly provided with opportunities for professional support and development, which in turn has a direct impact on the pupils learning experiences and on raising standards. Greater funding has brought rapid improvements to buildings and has provided new resources including staffing.”

Despite only being a supply teacher and not fulfilling a concrete role at any of the academies that she teaches at, Anne was still kept informed of any changes that were to take place.

“Staff were fully informed and in particular representatives from leadership consulted on concerns surrounding conditions of service and pensions. There are no plans to change conditions of service and pensions are fully protected. Whether this will change over time we will have to see”.

And when asked whether any of the schools came up against any opposition, Anne is unable to think of any examples.

“I haven’t been aware of any opposition; I feel the general view among staff and parents was that it inevitable but probably overall a positive change for the school and its pupils. To be honest there have been a lot of gains and very few negatives. Expectations of staff are rightly high as you would expect in schools that are striving to become outstanding”. 

A day in the life of an academy teacher – @acinsider guestpost

To get a better understanding of what it is like to work in an academy, we spoke to @acinsider, the twitter account of an academy teacher. Here is his guest post which includes his take on everyday academy life:

A day in the life of an academy teacher

I normally arrive at my Liverpool Academy at around 7.15 and the car park is half full already. People arrive early to show willing; do a bit of work but also because 4 days a week we have meetings before school starts: two staff briefings and two pastoral meetings.

Form time starts at 8.20 and the day goes on till 3.30. There are 6 periods in the day, half an hour for lunch and 15 minutes for break. General consensus is that the day is too long, the kids become tired and the afternoons are a waste of time. There are lots of behaviour incidents in the afternoon and other local, non-academy schools finish much earlier. We are also obliged to do one extra-curricular activity a week.

On the whole, every day is tough. Behaviour, lack of school leadership team (SLT) support and lack of student motivation is apparent. I have never heard so much ‘what do I need this subject for’, ‘why do I need to do well?’, ‘I don’t care’ etc.  Certain SLT revel in the popularity contest which has become part of everyday life. Students refuse to go to lesson because they dislike a certain teacher and then run to one of their preferred teachers for help. SLT fear discipline, give the kids too much leeway and do not want ‘issues with the local community’.  Several members of staff have left or been pushed out, some failed their NQT. I have worked in this academy for two years and in fact have only ever worked in academy schools. However, things which have occurred here, for no punishment at all, would have led to exclusions in my previous schools. I find it difficult to understand that a school which started with only year 7s does not have a handle on behaviour. In turn staff morale is generally low; many of us have raised concerns but are labelled ‘troublemakers’ or demeaned for being ‘too negative’.

Anyone who has worked in other schools knows that the goings on are not right. From the original staff only 2 teachers remain. Anyone else still left has been hastily promoted with inflated salaries and job titles which they would not be able to attain in other schools. Some heads of department are recently qualified teachers who have never taught GCSE or KS4. Some members of SLT are in their 20’s.

Paper work has become a massive issue and bone of contention. Each lesson much have a differentiated typed up lesson plan and data for each student. We have very few free periods as we are expected to do behaviour cover and help colleagues. There is no staff room in order to quell unrest and conversations between staff. The list could go on.

I will finish on a positive. Every cloud has a silver lining – I got a new job yesterday in a school in which staff do not do duty, cover and where PPA is protected. As a drinker of Guinness I believe the adage: Good things come to those who wait!

Academies, A pupil’s perspective

Following my interview with parent Andrea Jeffery, I was able to interview her son, sixteen year old Sam Jeffery who is a senior prefect at the school, to find out how involved pupils were in the decision to become an academy, how much they knew about it and indeed what changes Sam has recognised in his school, which was already classed as outstanding across the board by Ofsted, before the shift to academy.

Sam is in his final year at Painsley and is currently sitting his GCSE’s and despite attending student council meetings and performing the role of senior prefect, he reveals to me that before his school became an academy, not only did they not have a say in the proceedings, he didn’t really know much about the process and academies in general.

“I didn’t really know anything about academies before Painsley became one. I’d heard of the JCB academy [a high highly successful engineering academy in Staffordshire] but I thought it was like a private school… We were told about a lot of things as they happened, but I don’t really think we had much say. My parents went to a meeting”

Despite the lack of involvement with regards to pupils, Sam still maintains that the change to academy has been a positive one, although he had some concerns.

“I thought it seemed a good thing, but when we heard the head teacher had more freedom to make changes I wasn’t sure cause some people said that could mean longer days or less holidays. That hasn’t happened though”.

Sam also maintains a positive outlook on the changes that the school has implemented after it became an academy.

The cloakrooms have had a complete make- over with new lockers for everyone, which is something the school council has been asking for for years. The dining room has also been refurbished which is loads better for us”.

Parent praises academy status

I met with Andrea Jeffery whose son currently attends Painsley Catholic Academy in North Staffordshire, to find out exactly how involved parents were in the process and what they really think about the change to academy status.

Andrea is a busy working mother of two and so understandably does not necessarily have the time to spend pouring over documents about academy policy. However, she assures me that she involved herself as much as she could.

“We were first informed in writing that the governors were considering academy status and following that a consultation meeting was held at school where parents could ask questions and express their views.”

Andrea then goes on to suggest that despite parents being given every opportunity to find out about what the change to academy status would involve, actually very few of them showed much of an interest.

 “We were informed by letter as things progressed but not many parents attended the meeting so I suppose they must have trusted the leadership to make the right decision for them. I was happy with what I heard”.

And when asked about her view at the time following these meetings.

“I was happy with what I heard and couldn’t see that there would be any negative changes”.

Andrea tells me that she is an active member of her the school community and takes her sons education very seriously, so was understandably dubious about the proposed changes.

“Initially I was unsure about the change as I had some concerns from some of the negative things I’d read in the press. Mainly around things like admissions policy and that academies could be selective”.

However, she goes on to assure me that once she attended the meeting, her worries were quickly put to rest

After the consultations I was happy with what I’d heard. Basically things like admissions would remain the same. I felt it would be a good thing for my child’s education as the school would have more money and could have more freedom over the curriculum”

Andrea then goes on to observe the positive changes that have been implemented following the schools shift to academy status.

“There’s definitely a lot more money, from what I can see there have been numerous improvements to buildings, furnishings and new resources which is great”.

Finally I ask the all- important question “Do you think the change has been a positive one?” and one again the reaction from my interviewee is very encouraging.

“The changes have been positive from what I’ve seen as the school environment and equipment and extra staff are adding to the education my children are receiving. There is a general atmosphere of striving for higher achievement. My children seem very happy.”

Struggling academies drain Government resources

Academies across the country that are struggling financially are increasingly turning to the Government for cash handouts according to financial agency Syscap.

Over the last year academies have claimed over £9 million in emergency funding, this is a shocking 52% increase on the £5.9 million the previous year so the financiers released.

Syscap is one of the primary finance providers in the educational sector , they keep track of spending throughout the educational system. With the rise of the academy they have become a financial watchdog, looking into how academies have effeted the total costs incurred by the DfE (Department for Education) and raise warnings for the future.

The numbers not only showed the increase in the amount of cash the academies have needed but also that in the last year three more academy schools have joined the list of those who can no longer support themselves making a total of nine, that works out over a £1 million per year per school.

This figure is only set to get higher as Syscap revealed that due to an administrative error academies were actually overpaid in previous years, whilst there are no plans for a repayment  they instead  are next year cutting the per pupil grants.

Syscap chief executive Phillip White commented on the situation saying,

“If some academies are already struggling financially, the prospects for next year do not look good as academies have to readjust to lower per pupil grants.”

This news comes less than a month after the DfE were heavily criticized for overspending on academies by over £1 billion during the last two years.  Margaret Hodge, chair woman of the investigating committee sent a clear message to the DfE,

“Some of this money had previously been earmarked to support schools struggling with difficult challenges and circumstances…the department’s decision to solely use this money to create academies – many of which were already high performing – may have been at the expense of weaker, non-academy schools which could potentially have benefited from it more”

Advocates of the academy system hit back saying the report ‘ignores the successes of the programme and fails to take under spent budgets into account’.

A further report has been called for with which individual school spenditure can be looked at at a ground level