This week’s debate: Is total academisation the best way forward for city schools?

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‘Model is concerned with turning a profit for backers’

Timothy Plant, Primary School Volunteer

I was for many years a governor of one of Sheffield’s largest comprehensive schools and am proud of our record of resisting more than 30 years’ worth of attempts to break up our educational service.

I think it is a tragedy that great schools with a long and honourable history of serving Sheffield and its children are now being forced into an expensive, ineffective privatisation and selection system that will exclude our children from the education they need and deserve.

What the children of Sheffield now need more than anything else is a joined-up education system; where the resources, the management and professional effort is focused on meeting the needs of individual children, families and communities in the city.

What we do not need is schools run like private companies with no relationship to Sheffield, little or no accountability and no way of developing coherent city-wide plans and priorities for spending the already inadequate funds allocated to our educational services.

Libby Nicholas, chief executive of Astrea Academy Trust

Libby Nicholas, chief executive of Astrea Academy Trust

Academies and Free Schools do not have a happy history and I am at a loss to see how any serious educationalist can point to them as an effective model of teaching.

They are concerned with making a profit for their international financier backers, paying their ‘executive heads’ exorbitant salaries and perks and making questionable deals with their private service suppliers.

Once you have allowed for the ‘creaming-off’ effect of taking the most academically successful schools out of local authority management, they have demonstrated little improvement in academic results.

Much worse, many have been closed or reorganised following accusations of sordid incompetence and fraud.

Recently, The Times Educational Supplement reported on the fate of five of these so-called ‘super heads’ once lauded by the Government who have been dismissed, suspended and in at least one case, jailed for incompetence and fraud.

Academies are not being created to meet the educational needs of all our children but are about private profit and the reintroduction of selection and an exclusivity that will add further to the deprivation of ordinary children and families.

‘Being part of a trust brings genuine benefits’, Libby Nicholas, CEO of Astrea Academy Trust

Being part of a multi-academy trust brings with it real benefits, and there is real truth in the maxim that we are more than the sum of our parts – and in the best MATs, many times more.

Firstly, there are the very obvious economies of scale: the considerable purchasing power you have if you are buying on behalf of 16 schools rather than one on anything from energy bills to gluesticks. It also makes sense to share some staff roles – finance, IT, buildings management and so on.

And there are huge benefits, too, in terms of taking a system-wide approach to school improvement, developing meaningful career paths for staff at all levels in the school, and recruiting across a group of schools.

With scale also comes the ability to invest in technology – having a common set of information about how well every pupil is doing and how each school is performing, along with easily accessible IT systems that mean parents can engage very directly.

These operational benefits are hugely important – they help us ensure that as much money as possible is invested back in the classroom.

But there is actually something more profound at play in successful MATs. When you are a single school you are – perfectly understandably – quite inward-looking, focused on what is going on in your school. When you are in a successful MAT, it is about a shared sense of responsibility – often in a specific geographic area, as is the case with Astrea where we have started our journey as an organisation focusing on the South Yorkshire area.

Having this shared set of values and overarching ambition can be a real game-changer when it comes to raising aspirations right across a community and helping young people truly discover their talents.

Karl Housley

Karl Housley

‘It’s incorrect to feel switch is inevitable’. Simon Murch, Joint Division Secretary, Sheffield NUT

Although first introduced under Labour, academies were promoted by Michael Gove as a way to undermine the role of local authorities and introduce competition, thereby fragmenting the education system.

Academy trusts have their own policies on everything from pay to sickness absence. They do not have to employ qualified teachers, which is a fundamental concern for parents and the NUT. More staff need to be employed to run outsourced contracts which is money that isn’t being spent on children’s education. Nationally, academy schools exclude more vulnerable children than maintained schools. When a school academises, the land and buildings are lost to the community, transferring to the trust. Currently this change is irreversible.

Evidence shows academy schools do not get better results or improve more quickly than state schools. There is less accountability to parents and some are run like businesses with their leaders paying themselves higher salaries. Topping the list is Dan Moynihan, CEO Harris Federation, whose 2016 annual salary was £420,000.

Nicky Morgan’s White Paper said all schools must become academies by 2022 but this is not now the case so schools are incorrect if they feel it is inevitable. Some may feel that by joining together locally with like-minded schools offers them some protection against predatory multi-academy chains from outside the region. In fact it is easier for a school to be taken over by another trust once they have left the control of the local authority.

There is a £3 billion cash crisis in education with spending cuts in Sheffield of £27 million equivalent to £395 per pupil or 731 teachers.

The NUT strongly believes schools should be fighting these cuts rather than wasting money on academisation. Sheffield NUT have organised a Stop Education Cuts public rally on Saturday and we urge anyone concerned with education to turn out and support it.

Karl Housley, Managing Director of PK Education

When a business is taken over, the first concern of the staff employed by it is ‘what about my job?’

Academies are big business, literally. And, it is with certainty that many of the staff working in King Edward VII School, High Storrs and Stocksbridge High will have concerns for their jobs now that the schools have applied to join the Minerva Learning Trust.

However, what I would urge all staff to bear in mind is that when a larger organisation takes over a smaller one, with it comes the potential for opportunity and improved conditions; shared good practice, enhanced discipline, shared goals and promotional opportunities.

The plan is for all schools in England to become academies by 2020 (or have official plans to do so by 2022). Whether they become an academy now or in 3 years’ time, it is inevitable and therefore the system must be embraced.

Autonomy is a word I hear frequently when teachers talk about working for academies. There is very little dictation from the powers above and a school can mould its curriculum around its demographic of pupils rather than taking a one-size–fits-all approach. For teachers that love being in the classroom, this can be very welcome when it comes to teaching lessons.

There is also huge scope for continued professional development (CPD) for teachers through the creation of ‘learning hubs’ across academy trusts. These hubs introduce teachers to new techniques and learning practices they may not have otherwise experienced and which can potentially reduce workload.

Of course, it would be remiss of me not to mention potential changes to the school working day when a school becomes an academy. Working days may become longer, however a slightly longer working day in an academy can give teachers the opportunity to get their planning, preparation and assessment done in work time, rather than home and holiday time.

Academisation can reduce work load, increase job satisfaction and give staff back that all important work life balance. If an academy has improved standards for pupils AND teachers at its heart, then the system works for everyone.