Last week Chancellor George Osborne set out plans to end council control of England’s schools by converting them all into academies. But what does this mean for children’s education, and what other planned changes to schools should we be aware of?
Academies and planned changes to schools
Mr Osborne has placed changes to schools at the centre of his budget. Using radical new powers, the government will force all school to become academies by 2020, or show firm plans that that they will be an academy by 2022.
Changes to the law
Until now, the law has required parents to be consulted before their child’s school becomes an academy. That law will soon be abolished – a move that many say damages our rights as parents.
For the most part, schools tend to become academies due to financial incentives. So far 2,440 of 16,766 primary schools have obtained academy status. A further 2,075 out of 3,381 secondary schools have also become academies.
Other planned changes to schools include:
- parents governors to be replaced with ‘skilled’ professionals
- extended school hours for 25% of schools
- removal of the requirement for teaching qualifications to be accredited by universities. Schools and headteachers will instead be allowed to decide when a teacher is sufficiently qualified to teach
- council involvement with school to be reduced to ensuring that every child has a school place, ensuring the needs of pupils are met, and championing parents
- a review to consider whether maths should be compulsory until the age of 18
- a sugar tax on fizzy drinks which will be used to fund sport in primary schools, and after-school activities in secondary schools
- a greater focus on school performance in northern England
What’s the argument ‘for’ all schools becoming academies?
Supporters of academies say that removing council control gives power back to schools by reducing bureaucracy. They say that this in itself will raise standards.
Education Secretary, Nicky Morgan, said in her policy paper last week: “When every school is an academy, groups of schools will be able to span geographic boundaries, with the best MATs [Multi-Academy Trusts] expanding to run schools in our toughest areas in a way that no high-performing local authority ever could.
“This provides real accountability, competitive pressure and choice–improving performance, enabling innovation and scaling success.
“This step will also simplify the current situation, where we have two parallel school systems with two ways of allocating funding and two sets of legislation. This parallel system is unnecessarily complex and sets up an unnecessary conflict of interest for local authorities.”
Academies may be entitled to receive more funds than state schools. In the past, they have been awarded £25,000 in conversion costs from the Department for Education. Their budgets have also been topped up their budgets by up to 10% by diverting funds that once went to the local council.
What’s the arguments ‘against’ all schools becoming academies?
While George Osborne hopes that absolving councils of control will make schools “free from local bureaucracy,” several official reports have found that giving schools academy status is not always a recipe for success.
In 2015, the education select committee released a report on academy schools which concluded: “Current evidence does not allow us to draw conclusions on whether academies in themselves are a positive force for change… Academisation is not always successful nor is it the only proven alternative for a struggling school.”
Another major study from 2014 found that low performing primaries which converted to sponsored academies have a slower rate of improvement than similar council-run schools.
Failure to stand up to scrutiny
Further research by the Local Schools Network, which supports and examines planned changes to schools in the UK, asserted that, “none of the claims of government ministers for the better performance of sponsored academies stand up to scrutiny.”
Chair of the Education Committee, Neil Carmichael, said: “Some academies are delivering great results for their pupils, but in progressing to a fully academised system we must ensure all schools are properly held to account for their performance.
“Multi-academy trusts currently receive little scrutiny and in our inquiry we are determined to examine their performance, accountability, and governance. The government will face significant challenges in implementing these proposals.”
Experts share their concerns
Academies do not perform better than council-run schools
A study completed for the Local Government Association (LGA) in 2015 found that students do no better in academy schools than in schools run by the local authority.
Summing up, the researchers said: “The analysis found that the differences in school GCSE performance between sponsored academies that have been open for between 2 and 4 years and a group of similar maintained schools were generally small and mostly not statistically significant.”
The LGA said that its finding indicate that high-performing council-run schools should be able to sponsor struggling schools without having to become academies. The current planned changes to schools would make this impossible.
Academisation is an unnecessary change
Clive Reynolds, head of Hamilton Primary School in Colchester, expressed his view that good council-run schools have no reason to become academies.
He said: “More than 80 per cent of primary schools in Essex have been rated either ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted, so unless schools are struggling, I cannot see a good enough reason why they would be forced into academisation.
“The biggest challenge for primary schools – and the teaching profession as a whole at the moment – is recruitment processes and the lack of good quality teachers.
“One of the main factors of success for a school is the quality of teaching, not the structure, or legislation surrounding the school.”
Academies may let down children with special educational needs
Mark Lever, chief executive of the National Autistic Society, said: “The government must explain how its plan to make all schools in England become academies will affect children with special educational needs, including autism.
“Local councils will continue to be responsible for making sure the most vulnerable children in their area get the education they deserve but they’ll have to do this without having any control over local schools.”
Potential abuse of public money
In a move known as ‘top slicing,’ some large academy chains have been using government funding to pay huge salaries to their executives. So-called chief executives can take home eye-watering six-figure sums that should be going to our children.
Journalist Laura McInerney is one of many who have pointed out that unregulated pay in academised schools and their governing ‘academy trusts’ could mean public money is misspent.
She said: “Controversially, there are no rules around pay for academy trust leaders, which is what seems to be behind the charges that the trusts are ‘greedy’. One chief is paid almost £400,000 a year for overseeing 37 (admittedly highly rated) schools.
“Leaders are also allowed to run for-profit companies that can sell goods into the schools, despite cross-party MPs recommending that this practice be stopped, and it being widely denounced across the charities sector.”
Extending school hours
Speaking about the plan to extend school hours, Malcolm Trobe, the interim general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “It’s going to be quite complex to define the difference between those activities that schools are already laying on for pupils and any additional activities which come out of the Chancellor’s Budget statement.
“We also believe it’s highly divisive to have these funded activities available in 25% of schools – potentially youngsters in some schools would be in an advantageous position over others.”
What do you think about the planned changes to school in Essex and the rest of England? Share your thoughts in the comment section below.