Monday 2 June 2014

Academies - why governors should say NO to conversion

The Governing Body of Bonus Pastor Catholic College in Lewisham is ‘exploring’ whether to convert into an Academy. Unions believe that such a decision would be badly mistaken. In this post, I explain why.

No proven financial benefits

Governors have suggested that they have carried out a financial analysis which shows that they will be much better off as an Academy - and so will have better resources, support for students etc.

Unions do not believe this will be the case. We understand that Lewisham Local Authority have done their own analysis contradicting the claim that there will be financial benefits in converting.

Yes, as an Academy, Bonus Pastor would get more income - but it would have more costs too. That extra expenditure would cancel out the extra income.

It’s probably true that, when Governments first wanted to encourage schools to convert, the sums were done in a way that helped Academies - but the Treasury can’t afford that to continue.

Academies are now funded on the same basis as local authority (LA) schools. Far from giving them a funding advantage, Academy conversion actually brings greater funding risks as schools lose the security of being part of the Local Authority.

The DfE has said that "the Government is clear that becoming an academy should not bring about a financial advantage to a school."

Changes to the funding system from April 2013 made funding arrangements for academies close to those for other schools. A plan for a national funding formula could make funding arrangements identical.

As an ‘independent’ Academy, the school will have responsibility for organising and paying for services that the LA used to provide. Academies have to purchase these services themselves - and this may cost them as much or more than before.

The school will no longer be able to rely on the financial help that LAs can provide, particularly to manage a sudden crisis, nor be able to benefit from the same economies of scale and preferential interest rates available to LAs. Insurance premiums may also be higher for Academies.

No advantage in being called an ‘Academy’ in Lewisham

In some of our neighbouring boroughs, like Southwark and Bromley, once one secondary school became an Academy, others soon followed. Heads and Governors feared that they also needed to be branded as an ‘Academy’ if they were going to maintain their admissions.

That’s not the case in Lewisham. Only Malory (to become Knight’s alongside Aske’s Hatcham) and St.Joseph’s (St.Matthews) converted.

There is no advantage in Bonus Pastor being labelled an ‘Academy’. In fact, with so many Academies being hit by scandals - such as the recent collapse of the Prospects Academies Trust and the big salaries paid to Academy CEOs - the Academy ‘brand’ may not be attractive at all!

No guarantee of success

When Academies were first launched, their backers claimed that they would prove to be academically superior to Local Authority schools.

Of course, and has research has consistently shown, turning a school into an Academy is no guarantee of educational success. Some have done better but many others have done worse. The National Audit Office found that “the gap in attainment between more disadvantaged pupils and others has grown wider in academies”.

Worryingly, research suggests that, where some Academies have improved their standing, they have done so by changing their pupil intake - at the disadvantage of other local schools. Surely that’s not something that Bonus Pastor Catholic College would want to do? So, why convert at all?

What extra ‘freedom’ do governors want?

The Head and Chair of Governors say that “Academies have greater curriculum and operational freedoms”. But what kind of ‘freedoms’ are we talking about? In practice, most schools, whatever their status, follow similar curricula in order to meet exam targets and meet pupil needs.

What ‘operational freedoms’ are proposed? The ‘freedom’ to employ unqualified teaching staff? To alter the school term dates compared to other local schools? To alter the school’s admissions criteria? To cut parent places on the Governing Body? Surely, most of these additional ‘freedoms’ would not be ones that Governors would want to consider?

Staff pay and conditions could change - that fear will destabilise the school

One of the main fears that staff will have is that Academy conversion risks changes to their pay and conditions - and rightly so. Staff know that some Academies have broken with national conditions, imposing longer hours or worse redundancy and sick pay, for example. After all, this has proved to be the main ‘freedom’ Academies have chosen to exercise.

It has already been suggested that the school wants ‘freedom to pay bonuses or honoraria’. But, with a limited budget, few ‘bonuses’ will be available - unless they are at the expense of another person’s salary.

Governors will seek to assure staff and unions that they don’t intend to worsen conditions and that “TUPE Regulations” mean that they are legally protected from any change. However, TUPE doesn’t apply to new staff. New legislation also means that, even under TUPE, then academies can renegotiate new terms twelve months after conversion.

Staff will remain fearful and that inevitably risks destabilising the school.

‘New relationships’ could be at the expense of damaging local relationships in Lewisham

The Head and Chair of Governors say that Academy status would allow ‘enhanced’ partnerships and relationships “through the Academies network”. There is nothing to stop Bonus Pastor continuing to build such partnerships with its existing status. However, what partnerships are being proposed in the ‘Academy Network’? Will Bonus Pastor end up linked with other Academy Chains - and at what cost to the school?

A decision to become an Academy will, however, damage other local relationships. Most other secondary schools have resisted taking the Academy route. Lewisham has not become fragmented into different Academy chains like some other boroughs. An academy conversion at Bonus Pastor would be a risk to the school - and to other schools too.

The wrong agenda for education – and the wrong choice for Bonus Pastor

The Head and Chair of Governors say that “our vision as a Catholic Academy would remain the same”. However, it would be naïve to ignore the fact that the vision of politicians backing Academies - like Michael Gove - is one that many teachers and parents could not accept. They want to break-up democratically accountable schooling and allow profiteering companies to benefit from education. Unions do not want any part of such a ‘vision’ - and nor should Bonus Pastor governors.

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