What is different about academies, and what is it about these schools that provokes such a diversity of feelings in education professionals and parents alike? Susie Roome focuses on this hot topic, which has recently seen much press interest and community debate generated by the government’s expanding programme

In the first of two articles from Legal Expertise, we examine why academies are different, and what is it about these schools that provokes such a diversity of feelings in education professionals and parents alike. Next time we will focus on and explain some of the distinctive legal aspects of the academies programme.

What is the government’s academies programme?

The academies programme is a fundamental part of the Government’s education policy, aimed at driving up standards, and increasing opportunities and aspirations. Academies are all-ability, state-funded independent schools, which are established and managed by sponsors from a wide range of backgrounds, including philanthropists, the voluntary sector, faith communities, high-performing schools and colleges, and the commercial sector. It is this involvement of sponsors that the government says will challenge traditional thinking on how schools are run, and break cultures of under-achievement. However, as we discuss below, the role of sponsors is also the issue that causes concern among those who criticise the programme.

How many academies are planned?

The first academy projects were announced in September 2000, when the government committed to opening 400 academies, and 200 are due to open by 2010. Recently, there has been a much-heralded expansion of the programme, with the government stating that demand from parents is so high that it will be possible to continue opening 100 academies a year after 2011.

Is the academies programme a success?

Recently, the then schools minister Lord Adonis released provisional figures showing that GCSE results at academies have improved twice as fast as the national average this year. National exam results showed that the proportion of pupils gaining five GCSEs at Grade C and above had risen 2.4%. By contrast, the proportion of pupils in academies gaining five GCSEs at grade C and above had increased by 4.9%. As another measure of success, it has been reported that academies are on average three times over-subscribed.

Who is responsible for running an academy?

An academy is owned and run by the Academy Trust, which is a company set up as a charity. The Trust owns the land and assets of the academy. However, responsibility for the day-to-day running of the school is held by its governing body. There are usually 13 governors on an academy governing body. Of these, the sponsor is able to appoint the majority, giving it the control of the school, and its philosophy and direction. The governing body has a wide range of influence, from the employment of the academy’s principal and staff, to the approval of personnel policies and procedures. This is a key issue for those who criticise the programme – teaching unions and some community groups argue that this removes state education from local democratic control, leaving it in the hands of private-sector sponsors.

So are academies free to do what they want?

No. The government has imposed certain minimum requirements on academies. They are bound by the same school admissions code, SEN code of practice and exclusions guidance as other state-funded schools, and parents’ rights to appeal to the SEN or disability tribunals are unaffected. The local authority retains responsibility for the special education specified in a child’s Statement and can request that the secretary of state intervenes if the academy fails to provide the correct SEN provision. All new academies are required to follow the national curriculum in English, maths, science and ICT, and they are inspected by Ofsted in the same way as other schools.

Academies are also accountable to the local community, who should be represented on the governing body by one member of the public and a local authority representative. The public have been vocal in some areas where academies projects have been announced, such as the parents who have taken Camden Council to the High Court this month to complain that the way in which University College London was chosen as sponsor for an academy was a ‘backroom deal’.

What are the other criticisms made of academies?

There are a few. First, it is sometimes argued that they cause disadvantages to neighbouring schools. In particular, press reports have focused on academies poaching the best headteachers by offering high salaries. Communities argue that over-subscription of academies has a negative impact on local schools, and the lack of requirement for a parent association leaves the community without a voice. Teachers’ unions are less involved with academies, because they are free to determine their own employment policies.

There has also been recent concern over the sustainability of academies, and the need to ensure that sponsors stay on board. This is highlighted by the Unity City Academy in Middlesbrough, where the sponsor is currently in talks with the government to dissolve its sponsorship of the academy. This is unprecedented, and it is not clear what this withdrawal will mean for the school. With the effects of the credit crunch becoming more widespread, this is all too relevant a concern for the future.

So what is the future for academies?

Only time will tell whether academies are, in fact, the schools of the future, or whether they are simply the latest fad. What is clear is that both the government and the Opposition are keen to push ahead with the academies programme, so issues relating to academies will continue to hit the headlines and cause community debate for some time to come.

This e-bulletin issue was first published in November 2008

About the author: Susie Roome