Debating Proposals for Many More Academy Schools

Thursday, July 1st, 2010. 3:15am

Academies Bill Screenshot

On BBC Radio Cambridgeshire’s Breakfast with Jeremy Sallis on the Monday 28th of June a news report stated:

Over 20 schools in Cambridgeshire are thinking of cutting ties with the Local Education Authority to become academies. The legislation which would make this possible should become law before the end of July. Kevin Bullock is the headteacher of Fordham primary school; he’s on the “interested parties” list but hasn’t decided whether to go for it:

“Cambridgeshire are very good; if they see that you’re getting good results at schools they will leave you to do your own thing so I said: ‘what else will I gain’ and to be honest there wasn’t lots to entice us so at the moment our Governing body are discussing [the matter] and we’ve registered interest but that’s all. It’s a long long way down there before we become an academy.’

Later in the show there were interviews with Andrew Hutchinson Executive Principal of the Parkside Federation and Cambridge City Councillor, and Orchard Park Primary School Governor, Clare Blair. I have transcribed these below and have followed them with my own views.

Interview with Andrew Hutchinson

Jeremy Sallis: Andrew Hutchinson is the Executive Principal of the Parkside Foundation, good morning to you Andrew:
Andrew Hutchinson : Good Morning

JS: Good to have you on. And the Parkside Federation comprises which schools?
AH: Two schools in central Cambridge. Parkside Community College and Coleridge Community College.

JS: So they’d both become an academy?
AH: They would both become an academy if our proposal goes through.

JS: And what exactly does that mean – to have academy status Andrew?
AH: Well the two key things for us are that it gives us freedom from following the national curriculum so we can teach what we think is important – much in the same was as local private schools do – they’re not bound by the national curriculum and we’d like those same freedoms. The second freedom it gives us is that it gives us full control over our own budgets. We can choose where we spend the money and what we spend it on and make sure we get the best outcomes for our students.

JS: What are you spending your money on at the minute which you think you shouldn’t be?
AH: Well at the moment some of the money is held back by the local authority and we get services provided by the local authority rather than getting the money to spend to choose what we think is important for us. So we only get about 92% of our budget directly and with academy status we’d get the 100% and could make the best choices. We think that is particularly important going forward as obviously budgets are going to be much tighter over the next five years and we want the maximum choices.

JS: What would you do better then? Is it just a question of who you bring in to provide those services or are we talking about different services for the pupils?
AH: It might be different services, it might be deciding if we need more of one service and less of the other. We obviously know best what it is we need to improve our schools. We know what we need to buy in. It gives us more choice to say we need more of this, or we need more textbooks next year or we need an extra teacher to teach a specialist subject then we’d have the freedom to make that choice.

JS: As far as the curriculum goes, and you being able to teach what you think is in the best interests of the students what do you think you can do better than how it is at the minute Andrew?
AH: Well I think obviously we’ll continue to teach the core subjects: English; Maths; Science, ICT and others the humanities and so on – so we’ll have a core curriculum that all students will follow. But it also gives us a bit more freedom, particularly in years 7,8 and 9 the first years to give teachers the possibility to use their professional knowledge to devise lessons and courses that students really engage with. The other thing is it allows students to make choices as well. Part of this is about giving students a say on what they really want to learn and what’s important for them.

JS: What’s wrong with the curriculum as it stands? Is it just a question of churning out exam results and the curriculum is purely aimed at getting that result as opposed to getting a more rounded education?
AH: I think there is a danger of that and you can get obsessed with just following exam courses and getting results at all costs. But I think also it recognises that different schools might be in different circumstances. In particular locations in the country there might be a particular strong industry which has close links with schools and it is a good idea therefore to provide a curriculum which picks up on some of those opportunities available.

JS: What do you think therefore of critics who say that this academy status gives you too much autonomy, that you’re not accountable as much as you should be and as you are at the moment?
AH: I think schools will always be accountable and the governing body is an elected governing body it has a majority of elected members from the local community, parents and so on. We also get inspected by OfSTED those reports are available. I mean I’ve been working in schools for a very long time and we’ve never been more accountable than we are now and we would continue to be so as an academy.

JS: [Would you have control over] who you let through your doors?
AH: No, admissions would stay exactly the same. There is a national code on admissions and all academies, all schools, have to follow that code. We’re committed to being a community comprehensive school if we have academy status or trust status as we currently have.

JS: When do you hope to achieve academy status?
AH: We’re consulting at the moment and governors are going to look at this again in September and if we decide to go ahead we probably change from January 2011.

JS: OK thank you Andrew, good to talk to you this morning, thank you for joining us.
AH: Thanks very much bye-bye

JS: That’s Andrew Hutchinson Executive Principal of Parkside Foundation it’s coming up to a quarter past eight.

Interview with Cllr Clare Blair

Jeremy Sallis: The Executive Principle from the Parkside Federation was interviewed on the show earlier saying that there are many good reasons for becoming one [an academy School] and they’ve started the consultation process, but not everybody is a fan. Let’s have a chat with Councillor Clare Blair who is a Cambridge City Councillor and also a governor of a Cambridgeshire primary school.

JS: Good morning to you.
Clare Blair: Good morning Jeremy.

JS: Why are you against them then Clare?
CB: Well I think there are lots of key questions which need to be asked and of course it is right when government asks people to look at ‘do you want to change the status of the schools’ that schools consider it, but I think there’s some really key issues which have to be addressed. Academies were actually set up for underachieving schools and the average consultation time before taking academy status was listed as being twelve to eighteen months. It’s extremely difficult to see why now there seams to be such a wholesale rush especially when its now for schools graded outstanding who are being asked to look at this it is of course a key driver of raising attainment to pupils is no longer the issue for them so what I think we ought to do is look at what academies can offer that their current status doesn’t give them. It is often said that you have the ability to have 100% of your budget devolved well that’s an attraction – I’m chair of governors at a Cambridgeshire primary school and budget issues are always key in what we consider. But the part that is held back by the local authority is the part which amounts to around 8% is that part that deals with the services which all schools require and which arguably are best provided centrally, admissions, exclusions, dealing with students with special educational needs, in school and out of school support. I have… there is a real concern that those services will be fractured if a large number of schools can chose to opt-out and there’s an equal concern that those children even in successful academies will not have their needs fully addressed.

JS: Those schools which don’t take on academy status – why should they suffer if those which are academy schools are just taking their small part of the pie.

CB: Because all these are funded by top-slicing the central budget and by providing services across a whole range of schools. If some schools choose to go elsewhere clearly then they would have to revisit if those services can be provided at all. It may well be the best thing, I’m not saying that its not. But these are key questions which have to be addressed on how do we deal with the children.

JS: What about the benefit to the schools who are then able to set the curriculum because there’s no better people placed to say what’s best for those children and their education than the people who are teaching them than somebody in Whitehall so the ability to do what’s best for those children and give them a more rounded education rather than churning out exam results autobots – this is a good thing isn’t it?

CB: Absolutely, but I’m not convinced the current system doesn’t do that. I got involved in setting up a primary school and we’re incredibly proud of our curriculum and we’ve never found that we’ve been constrained. There are times when you disagree with some things coming out, but all good schools at the moment and I’m sure all of the schools because it is outstanding schools who are applying actually provide an excellent curriculum at the current time and there is a lot of flexibility.

JS: Sorry Clare, on that point, we hear from leaders of industry that people come out of school with good qualifications and they know nothing.

CB: While there’s always an issue about what happens the higher up you go and what people want. There’s always a dialogue to be had between schools and between industry that’s incredibly important and valuable but I don’t think what this is doing is saying you can put in place what industry wants, it is about the freedom of schools to innovate. I don’t think at the moment that schools are constrained by government in the sense that is being said. The other issue is the democratic accountability of academies, it was only in the 1980s that school governance was reformed and it gave every school a genuine, community based, governing body – one made up of elected parents and staff and representatives of the local authority and the wider community. That system has been highly successful, and highly regarded. In my own primary we had five elected parent governors for example. Now in academies this system doesn’t apply; they only need to have a single parent governor and a single staff governor the majority of governors not elected but appointed.

JS: But there are OfSTED inspections.

CB: There are OfSTED inspections, but OfSTED means accountability to the central government for what they are providing, its not the same as accountability to local people and the local community. Academies also sit outside much of the framework that schools operate in, and all schools, and I’m sure that Andrew Hutchinson as principal of Parkside would have said the same thing, all schools want to operate within a framework where each school complements others in the community and we’re not at odds with each other. For example within Cambridgeshire the remit of the local government ombundsman to consider parental complaints has recently been extended and from april of this year parents who have had issues with schools, over final analysis, could go along to a local government ombundsman and ask him to intervene, now he can’t do that in academies.

JS: Clare, thank you for joining us this morning, we’ll have to leave it there.

CB: Thank you very much.

JS: Take care. That’s Clare Blair who’s a Cambridge City Councillor and also a governor of a Cambridgeshire Primary, It’s 08:46

Party Commitments

Page 37 of the 2010 Liberal Democrat manifesto stated:

We will ensure a level playing field for admissions and funding and replace Academies with our own model of ‘Sponsor-Managed Schools’. These schools will be commissioned by and accountable to local authorities and not Whitehall, and would allow other appropriate providers, such as educational charities and parent groups, to be involved in delivering state-funded education.

In 2005 the Liberal Democrats were split on academies and decided not to mention them at all in their manifesto. A faction of the Liberal Democrats is currently calling on Lib Dem MPs and Peers to vote against the Academies Bill.

The section on schools in the coalition programme for government states:

We will promote the reform of schools in order to ensure [...] that all schools have greater freedom over the curriculum; and that all schools are held properly to account.


We will ensure that all new Academies follow an inclusive admissions policy.

The coalition agreement doesn’t directly include measures the academies bill seeks to bring in.

My View

The Education Secretary’s letter to outstanding schools inviting them to become academies says: “A key principle behind this partnership Government is trusting professionals. That is why this Government will give you more power and control and will trust you to get on with the job.” I fully agree with that principle however I think the current government proposals go to far towards delegating power and freedom to schools – to the point where might well end up with uncontrolled chaos. I think there needs to be an appropriate balance between freedoms for teachers and schools, but within a framework of minimum standards and expectations. I think it is particularly important that state funded schools are under democratic control.

The Education Secretary lists some of the benefits of becoming an academy as:

  • freedom from local authority control;
  • ability to set your own pay and conditions for staff;
  • freedom from following the national curriculum;
  • ability to change the length of terms and school days;
  • having greater control over school budgets; and
  • freedom to spend the money the local authority currently spends on your behalf.

While I like the direction of change in each case, there do need to be limits. We can’t have state schools teaching creationism or homeopathy or deciding to have children spending more time gardening than learning maths. While I think there should be a lot of freedom for schools to locally tailor their curriculum; I don’t think that there ought be complete delegation to schools about what they teach.

I am not in principle opposed to people and companies making a profit from the provision of tax-payer funded public services. I do think though that there need to be safeguards to ensure that profits for those running academies are not put before pupil’s education, and that publicly funded assets cannot be sold off to create a profit.

One of the problems being addressed is the poor quality of local authorities; if schools were free to choose who they purchased centrally provided services from – and could for example turn to neighbouring local authorities that would introduce competition which would push standards up and lower costs.

By removing the role of local authorities schools which become academies end up answerable only to central government. This is a step in the wrong direction – it is astonishing centralisation. The academies bill in its current draft gives huge amounts of power to the secretary of state, hopefully when the bill passes through the commons some of that power eg. to close academies back to locally elected representatives.

When we have a few academies then there is always the potential for local authorities to take them back; if there is an explosion in the number of academies then local authorities may lose the ability to run schools and there will be no way of reversing the decision to set the schools free.

I think there are enormous risks that the current coalition government schools policies may lead to greater inequalities in state school provision. Resources, and more importantly quality of educational provision, need to be distributed fairly. It would be wrong if areas where parents are willing and able to set up their own schools, or where schools were willing to become academies ended up with much better schools than other areas. I think education can, and ought be a great equaliser, and schools ought form the key part of the foundation of a meritocratic society. I think it is right to allow a signifiant degree of independence and variety between schools so that innovative new ideas can emerge and when proven can be shared. Diversity is healthy when accompanied by mechanisms to ensure minimum standards are maintained and best practices shared.

While the Parkside principal made a commitment to operate accountably as an academy I don’t think that is sufficient. I think that academy schools ought, by law, be held to the same levels of accountability as other state schools. I think that is a clear pre-requsite for a wider roll-out of academy schools.

Academy schools to-date have had large investments of private money, often resulting in new buildings and lots of modern technology. I think if there is an explosion in the numbers of academies then corporate, or individual sponsors will be harder to find. While I support allowing schools to accept “sponsorship” and realise it has worked in a small number of cases, this isn’t a practical way of funding education nationwide. I think it is wrong to compare directly what is now being proposed with the small number of academy schools established under the Labour government (not all by any means have been successful).

I think both Cllr Blair and the Parkside principal made too much of the current elected, and local community based, nature of governing bodies. What they described was an ideal which isn’t common in practice. There are a number of problems, with the present arrangements – for example if too few parents stand for election the vacancies can be filled by appointments and there is nothing to stop parents who lose elections from being appointed to one of the other positions. If Cllr Blair was accurate in saying that in her school five parent governors were elected then I think that would be unusual. When I’ve spoken to my county councillor about matters related to schools (issuing laptops to primary school children, fingerprinting pupils, creating databases of what children do outside of school) he has complained he has no influence due to the closed manner in which Local Authority governors are appointed in Cambridgeshire.

Unlike Cllr Blair I think that OfSTED reports – as public documents – are a route through which schools are accountable to the public. I would like to see inspections all take place unannounced to reduce the current huge extra pressure put on teachers by the inspection process. Inspectors should view normal life at a school, not a special charade put on for their benefit as happens currently.

The Academies Bill

The Academies Bill is due to be debated in the House of Commons and the bill’s committee during July. I think MPs ought introduce amendments which:

  • Forbid academies selling off or mortgaging publicly funded assets, particularly land, without a democratically approved and legally binding re-investment programme.
  • Ensure democratic control over academy schools, and ensure that transparency and accountability is as great as possible, particularly with respect to who is selected to run academy schools and the details of the “scheme” (contract) with them. ie. there ought be something akin to an open tender process.
  • Make academy schools subject to the Freedom of Information Act.
  • Define the minimum components of a core curriculum.
  • Require minimum standards of maths for those teaching maths and science.
  • Ensure profits for those running academies are not put before pupils’ education.


BBC iPlayer : Cambridgeshire Breakfast with Jeremy Sallis – Mon, 28 Jun 2010 – Mr Hutchinson is at about 1hr14 and Cllr Blair is at 1hr42

4 comments/updates on “Debating Proposals for Many More Academy Schools

  1. Edward

    I’m not a fan of academies in general – whilst they might work for some schools, as a rule I’d say that LEAs know what they’re doing and they have the necessary machinery in place, which academies would have to duplicate, potentially causing waste. This is particular problem for primaries, which have much less in the way of administrative resources than secondaries.

    I’m also not a fan of too much Whitehall control here – it creates too much of an incentive to politicise the system. Nor do I like giving them control over pay policies – that’s going to lead to a brain drain, which is particularly concerning when the scheme is being marketed to outstanding schools, which already attract the best teachers.

    And of course, there are the obvious concerns about academies and free schools being used to perpetuate inequality.

    Still, I have to say I disagree with some of your criticisms. The gardening point is a bit of absurd whataboutery. Should any head indulge in such lunacy, you could be sure he or she would be removed extremely quickly and the academy status would probably be revoked. Curriculum changes would be likely to be much more modest.

    Moreover, whilst your idea of an internal market for LEAs sounds attractive, it has real problems in practice. Much of their work depends on central staff coming to visit local schools. My mother used to work as a literacy coordinator for Essex LEA and it was sometimes a stretch to get to all the schools on the patch. If you were to contract out, those journeys would get unreasonably long, increasing costs and reducing inefficiency. And things like observing lessons are difficult to do using electronic means.

    I also think you’re unreasonably harsh on governors. They are not, in the vast majority of cases, an unrepresentative sample of the local lunatic fringe. They’re parents and other community members who have the spare time and the generosity to devote their time to overseeing a school. They rarely lose elections because they’re unsuitable, they lose them because there’s a superior candidate. If there’s a vacancy and the loser is co-opted, that doesn’t mean a terrible candidate was co-opted. There could be reforms made to the system, but except in cases of religious schools with a not terribly religious intake where particularly fundamentalist types make their way onto the governing board, I don’t see any great problems.

    What’s more, unannounced OfSTEDs are a terrible idea. They’re stressful enough for teachers when they have time to prepare. I don’t think we need to triple coronaries in the classroom. I’d sooner see more peer review from neighbouring schools, combined with central check-ups where problems emerge, as I think this would make assessment and reform a continuous process and stop terrorising teachers unnecessarily.

    Lastly, how would you propose to frame a law to ‘ensure profits for those running academies are not put before pupils’ education’? That doesn’t seem like something that’s particularly easy to quantify as a general rule. What’s more, if companies can’t maximise profits, they’ve got no incentive to get involved. I see only two remedies here, neither of which is ideal:

    1. A minimum standard is announced, and companies tend to cluster around this level – this could probably be sorted by incentive pay, but in the nature of the things the incentive would often be misaligned, leading to either extra costs for central government if targets are too low or providers cutting back to the minimum if targets are too high.

    2. Taking away the school from the providers if it enters special measures and imposing punitive financial terms. The problems here are that you might drive away competent providers, as schools can disintegrate for reasons that aren’t the fault of the provider, and that you really ought to be catching schools before they enter special measures.

  2. Richard Taylor Article author


    Lots of great sensible points there, most of which I agree with.

    On Governors I wasn’t intending to be overly critical. Clearly the current system is much preferable to what we see in Academies, I was jut highlighting that, particularly in Cambridgeshire, we don’t have the ideal system which the two interviewees hinted we do. We could have a lot more accessibility, and openness. The school where Cllr Blair is chair of Governors has committed on its website to publishing the minutes of its meetings online, but hasn’t yet done so – prompting consistency on that. Open adverts for vacancies or elections and transparent mechanisms for appointing LA governors would open the system up.

    On inspections, I think unannounced inspections would be less stressful for teachers, as expectations would change. Inspectors could look at what a school normally looks like, teachers wouldn’t have to do extra work to prepare for inspections and we would get more meaningful results. I agree with your suggestion for more peer review and continuous improvement. I would say that formal inspections for good schools ought be minimal.

    Literacy coordinator for Essex LEA

    That’s exactly the kind of service which schools ought be free to decide if they need or not.

    Lastly, how would you propose to frame a law to ‘ensure profits for those running academies are not put before pupils’ education’?

    Well I’ve given one example saying that selling off public assets for profit could be, and should be limited. I would go further than that and while avoiding specific targets, profit ought not be made from schools which fail inspections.

  3. Edward

    I was under the impression that schools were required to advertise vacancies for elected governors, but I only really know the system for Essex, and not that well there if I’m honest. Certainly that’s a change that’d be worth having.

    Unannounced inspections might work for classroom assessment, although nervousness would play much more of a role here. It’s impossible to do a high-profile inspection without some form of observer bias, but I’d suggest you’d probably see less of an impact where teachers have some warning and can make sure they’re on their A-game, as they’d average out to a degree. I’m willing to hear counter-arguments here, of course.

    As far as non-classroom assessment goes, more warning might be needed. Producing the necessary papers needs time and it’s not advisable to have it lying around constantly. The current system of a weekend’s notice seems sufficient to me here.

    Formal inspections for good schools are already rarer than for poor schools. That said, I disagree absolutely with the plans to abolish inspections for outstanding schools. They may not always continue to be so, and in any case even outstanding schools have room for improvement.

    I’d also argue you can’t do without positions like literacy co-ordinators. You need a degree of external input for key subjects to prevent the formation of group think and whilst there’s a lot you can do with local links between schools, that’s mostly useful for mentoring and producing shared plans. This also functions as a useful link for the LEA to give out advice on best practice.

    Take it away and every school is an academy, but without the necessary extra support. I don’t think giving schools the option to double down on a failed plan – and let’s be honest, the ones refusing this sort of thing are the ones that are failing and refusing to accept it – is an improvement to the system.

    Still, I’m considerably keener on central control than you are, so I’m not surprised that we differ here.

    Still not convinced on the substance of ‘pupils before profit’. I just think you’re not proceeding very far beyond the level of generalisation, and you can’t actually have sufficient impact on the debate here without setting out some much clearer red lines. That said, I’m not writing the Academies Bill, so I don’t feel the need to demand any further meat on the bones. I just think you need to flesh that out if you’re intending to lobby our MP or central government on this.

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