Hey with Zion Primary School, based in Oldham, is a church school committed to ensuring high attainment and positive learning outcomes for all pupils. Writing for The Leaders Council, headteacher Andrew Clowes shares his thoughts on a common issue facing governors and school leaders at present: whether to transition into an academy or not.
To be a school, or to be an academy instead? That is the question for some headteachers and school governors right now.
We still have the usual priorities of settling the children in to their new classrooms, managing Covid as it rears its head again, and the question of “subject leadership” [maximising the impact of middle management] is a very common issue in primary schools right now.
But there is a more existential question in the air, about whether academisation is beneficial at all. Education secretary Gavin Williamson tells us that just over 50 per cent of pupils are now in academies rather than schools, but that number masks the difference between primary and secondary schools: only 37 per cent of primary schools, yet 78 per cent of secondary schools, have become academies. That is 39 per cent of schools overall. The fact that most pupils are in academies but there are more schools than academies is because of the bigger size of secondary schools.
The question of whether to academise was widely discussed in primary schools a few years ago in the pre-Brexit and pre-Covid years. Some schools were obliged to academise since they had failed their Ofsted inspections, but many with a choice chose not to: a common sentiment being that as most schools were “good”, in Ofsted’s terms, there was no apparent need. Headteachers and governors would feel that taking on an extra level of accountability for themselves was not necessary, if Ofsted said they were already doing a “good” job.
But times move on, and Mr. Williamson has brought up the question again. He said in April: “The government’s vision is for every school to be part of a family of schools in a strong multi academy trust…multi-academy trusts are the best way to advance education”. Ofsted’s blogs implicitly support this, advocating the support of subject specialists and noting that very few work with secondary schools, which they say limits the precision of curriculum goals.
Ofsted and Mr Williamson do have a point. There may well be other points that they have missed, such as the fact that the pastoral care that primary schools offer could be melded better with the provision offered in the early years of secondary school, so that the transition to “big school” is smoother for the still very young children. It is not just that primary schools can learn from secondary schools: the converse is also true. Hence, 88 per cent of primary schools are currently judged good or outstanding, but only 76 per cent of secondary schools can say the same.
But I am no Professor Pangloss. This is not the best of all possible worlds. Primary schools are full of generalists, not specialists, and there are potential benefits of working within a bigger structure.
My own school will need to address this same question over the coming period, and I am inclined to say that, in principle, it is time for us to make the step and become an academy, if we can find the right trust to work within. Should any of my school community read this, I stress it will not be my decision. I shall very strongly request that the governors, not I, make the decision either to academise or to remain a school, after full consultation with all relevant parties. The school will exist long after I have gone, and it would be wrong for my own views to sway others unduly. I am aware of what happened to Julius Caesar when he tried to overstep his powers!
There are potential drawbacks and potential advantages which are likely to be in the consideration of schools over the coming years. First and foremost, finance. Each trust takes a percentage of the school budget for its running costs. The question is whether the school expects to receive value for money for the sum top-sliced from its budget. It will typically look at the services provided now and the calibre of staff in post at the trust. But everything in life changes. Great staff leave: will the replacements be as good? Better? What influence will we have in determining future changes of direction?
Secondly, premises: schools have a responsibility to manage budgets but from time-to-time expenses go beyond what is possible for schools, given that they are widely not allowed to save huge amounts. For example, hundreds of thousands of pounds on replacing boilers in a school is beyond the £1 million or £2 million primary school budget. Schools like to be reassured about those circumstances - and they can be- plus complicated legal matters about who owns land. For example, my own school, itself a joint foundation, shares grounds with a Catholic school. Of the three churches and the local authority, who owns what? We are school people, better at poetry and fractions than resolving legal land disputes.
Thirdly, staffing: this is where the big win is, in my mind. Small schools, particularly primary schools, can be very insular if they are not careful and local networks have in some places withered because trusts have formed their own groups. We all benefit from networks and having access to others can provide support when needed and opportunities for career development by providing that help to others where it is sought.
Another key point is the curriculum: this should benefit because of the staffing benefits. Ability to access a better network of staff should support curriculum development, which means that pupil standards SHOULD rise.
Whether or not they do is a moot point: the evidence is disputed. The Local Government Association has suggested that schools do better when they stay as schools, but the Confederation of School Trusts disputes that claim.
One of the best things that has happened in schools in the last ten or fifteen years has been the promotion of research as a driver for school improvement. There has been no following the whims of charismatic leaders but looking instead at what has worked elsewhere. Being informed by research, though, is a bit like betting on horses: you can see which ones usually win, in which conditions, but the riders won’t always be the same, and the conditions are never identical. There are never any guarantees.
My own feeling is that IF we can find a trust with a strong ethos which fits what we set out to do as a church school, it is in principle a good idea.
What must not happen is that ego interferes with what is best for the children. Academising will add a level of accountability to me as headteacher and will remove a level of the local governing body’s influence. Some would say that this allows us to concentrate on the matters for which we are better placed to support children, but some would resist that threat to their influence: everybody likes to feel important, both at home and at work.
But we must always beware ego. As Cyril Connolly said, it sucks us down like the law of gravity. After all, schools were built for the benefit of children, not for the egos of staff or governors.