Suzanne O’Connell considers the rise of the academy and its escalating rate of reproduction

As a high-performing specialist school since its inception, with three separate specialisms (arts, science and sports) judged ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted, and as a national leader of education (and the school a national support school), I am thrilled that my school, Oldfield in Bath, is being recognised and rewarded with the opportunity to be fast-tracked to academy status. We, and other schools like ourselves, do know what works well in our own institutions and therefore it seems appropriate that we are ‘freed’ from central and local government initiative overload to innovate in our schools.

It is great to know that the new secretary of state is trusting us as headteachers, and therefore professional experts in our field, to be able to develop our schools. I think this is the first time that I have felt this ‘trust’ is being given to us. In the past it often felt that we were expected to unquestioningly follow every national and local initiative, whether or not it seemed relevant in our schools. If we dared (as I often did) to ignore or sideline one of these initiatives, I felt that I had to rehearse the arguments about my decision for non-implementation just in case I was asked to justify my actions.

In some cases these initiatives could not be ignored because we knew that Ofsted would be checking evidence for implementation. Now, for the first time since 1988, we will be free to innovate – we can look at our curriculum and possibly decide not to follow the National Curriculum. As long as the curriculum we choose is ‘broad and balanced’, which any school would surely want, we can design our own.

As a school judged to be ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted we will no longer have Ofsted inspections. I’m sure that staff are more excited by this than me! In one sense it was quite gratifying to have the school’s assessment of itself corroborated by an external body; nevertheless, it is an unnecessary financial and stressful burden which can be eliminated because successful schools can be trusted to continue to question what they do.

We are not complacent – we are always searching for ways to improve. Naturally we are delighted to get additional funding. Currently, funding of schools like ours means that we are punished for our success. We do not get ‘equal’ funding because with many grants the local authority can choose to give greater funding to those less successful schools. As in the GM (grant-maintained) days, we will receive our funding centrally. This is likely to mean an additional £400,000 a year.

The route to becoming a new academy
We had been anticipating, along with many other schools, a change in government. Therefore we had investigated what the process would be to become a new-style academy. As we had the previous year become a trust school (which had involved a great deal of formal consultation), we had wondered whether there was any preparatory work which could be done prior to the general election. We discovered that there would be no lengthy consultation process for ‘outstanding’ schools wishing to ‘convert’ to becoming an academy: all that was needed was a vote of the full governing body.

As soon as the date for the general election was set we arranged an additional governing body meeting for six days later; of course, the governors had discussed the possibility of becoming an academy at earlier meetings. We had preliminary discussions with staff, too. We had also informed parents, via our monthly school newsletter, that if there were to be a Conservative-led government after the election we would be able to take advantage of the opportunity to become a new academy.

After the governing body had voted to become an academy we formally wrote to the local authority and to parents. As we were, we believe, the first school nationally to announce our intention to go along this route, we received a huge amount of publicity, including on the BBC1 news! After waiting a few weeks we were able to register our interest in becoming an academy online with the new DfE. The DfE then allocated each school a named DfE contact person and schools are required to fill in a short ‘conversion application form’, a hard copy of which has to be sent to the DfE with a copy of the governing body minutes. On the DfE site there is a list of helpful frequently asked questions and answers and other general information about steps to be taken.

As we are already a foundation trust school we already own our grounds, employ staff etc, so many of the steps which a community school would need to take are irrelevant. The civil servants in the DfE are still working out the answers to many of the additional queries which schools have. We have been informed that we will be included in the first batch of applications to go to the secretary of state for approval. After that a funding agreement will be drawn up. We have contacted our solicitors in readiness for the legal work which will need to accompany our transfer to academy status.

Schools will be given a grant of £25,000 to assist with the transition costs. We are told that for ‘outstanding’ schools the process is likely to take three months in total; we certainly hope to achieve academy status by 1 September 2010.

Key benefits
Undoubtedly the additional funding, in times of government cutbacks, will be a benefit which we are eagerly anticipating. We are aware that, just as in grant-maintained days, we received no ‘free services’ from the local authority that we will receive as an academy. However, in the intervening years many of the old local authority services have been contracted out, with schools choosing, or not, to buy into them, so the changes will not be so marked.

We know that we will be able to ‘buy in’ the services which we require; in recent years many services such as education welfare, education psychology and behaviour support have been severely cut by local authorities. Indeed, local groups of new academies are likely to get together to share funding of specific services. What is important is that we will be in the position of being able to choose how many hours, delivered by a person or organisation of our choice, at a time of our choice, at a price determined by local market forces, instead of the current arrangement which gives us no choice in these matters.

Staff will benefit from being able to have a professional discussion about the curriculum we wish to offer to our students. As a fairly traditional, academic school, it is likely that we will not throw out all of the framework provided by the National Curriculum; however, at least we have that freedom to review and make choices. One example is that we will no longer be forced to offer all the diplomas. This is a great relief to us as our parents and students have not been keen to take these new courses, yet we have needed to go overboard trying to prove to the local authority that we have marketed them fully to our students.

Another fantastic benefit of the new academies is that each one must agree to support another school. As a national support school, and via our specialisms, we have been doing this work already. Surely it is a moral obligation for successful schools to help others to improve? All of my staff who have been involved in outreach work have found it to be professionally rewarding. It makes common sense that those staff at the chalk face are often in a better position to assist colleagues in other schools rather than so-called school improvement advisers in the local authority.

Some schools might benefit from the increased freedom to pay staff outside Teachers’ Pay and Conditions (STPCD) if they so wish. At my school we see more benefits of remaining within the STPCD, as it is known to employees, employers and unions and offers us sufficient flexibility on pay matters. Academies can choose term dates and the length of the school day; however, as a foundation school we have long had these choices.

Control over admissions
We will enjoy actually being our own admissions authority once more. While governors of foundation schools in theory controlled their own admissions, in practice, they did not. Surely it makes common sense that governors should want to give places to parents who choose this school as their first choice? Under the existing framework we were not allowed to know this information: political correctness insisted on ‘equal preference’. However, parents felt conned by a process which asked them to state a first, second or third choice, yet it could give parents their third choice and still be able to maintain under equal preference rules that all parents had gained a school of their choice.

In recent years we have been disadvantaged by a change to smaller political local authorities, which has meant that as a school on the edge of two local authorities many of our students have traditionally come from other LAs. The common admissions framework has frightened off parents from other local authorities from applying for places at our school. They felt that if they applied to us but failed to gain a place they might be offered a choice they didn’t want in their own local authority.

While in theory parents had ‘parental choice’ to apply to any school, admissions arrangements clearly discouraged this. I am heartened by the coalition government’s desire to see successful schools expand. We hope to return to a situation where we are regularly oversubscribed.

Student reaction
The students are enjoying all of the media attention which becoming a new academy is bringing. They have had the opportunity to ask questions about what being an academy will mean to them. We have explained about the freedom to innovate – many students are keen to change the school uniform (apparently many wish to see a return to school blazers!) so perhaps that is something which the school community will consider afresh next year.

A few months ago I had been concerned about the term ‘academy’ being used for these new schools. The word ‘academy’ was already associated negatively with the closing of failing schools and the opening of a replacement institution. Although some of the trade unions do not seem to have picked up the differences between the new academies and the old ones, a clearer picture is now being presented to the public about the new academies.

As headteacher of an ‘outstanding’ school I am thrilled that we are being given the opportunity to innovate. For those who ‘do not dare’ the amount of creativity and enterprise required to go it alone may not be an attractive option, but for many it will be an exciting and tantalising journey. Many of us will relish the earned autonomy and the freedom to develop in our professional field.

The changing profile of academies
Schools that have expressed an interest in becoming an academy are very different from existing academies, according to a briefing note published by the Centre for Economic Performance at the London School of Economics. It points out that existing academies have:

  • a far greater percentage of pupils who are eligible for free school meals
  • a larger percentage of students with special educational needs (both with and without statements)
  • larger percentages of pupils who are ethnically non-white
  • fewer pupils.

The briefing concludes: ‘If it chooses to follow the expression of interest route, the new coalition government’s policy on academy schools is not, like the previous government’s policy, targeted at schools with more disadvantaged pupils. The serious worry that follows is that this will exacerbate already existing educational inequalities.’

For more, see the table ‘Average 2008 school-level characteristics of schools which have expressed an academy interest compared to uninterested schools’ in CEP Briefing – A Note on Academy School Policy

Kim Sparling is headteacher of Oldfield School in Bath