Thursday, 21 February 2008

Rough Guide to Academies- Part 1

What is an academy? Here is the Anti-Academies Alliance's definition:

Academies are state schools:
controlled by private sponsors (who own the land and premises, through a trust) ;
outside the local authority system ;
with new buildings (in most cases) and running costs funded directly by government (including generous extra ‘start-up' money);
with greater freedom over the curriculum than other schools;
with no obligation to operate national pay and conditions agreements (because they are established under private school legislation).

If you want to know more, here is the first installment of my overview of academies:

Formerly a "City Academy", this began as a Blairite scheme to provide new starts to failing and crumbling inner-city secondary schools by giving them heaps of money and a re-brand. It was also a way to introduce the privatisation process into "education, education, education". It worked like this: private companies or individuals could sponsor a school by paying 2 million pounds towards a re-build. Well, they could pledge to pay £2million. In return, the replacement school would be an independent school, leased to and run by the sponsor.

As time passed (not much time it should be said: the first academy only opened in the 2002-2003 academic year), the goalposts shifted... and continue to do so. The businesses touted by New Labour as the ideal sponsors to bring innovation into education* shied away from the scheme, saying that they did not wish to be involved in initiatives seen by many to be divisive. This left a void which is being filled largely by entrepreneurs and faith organisations (Christian, many of fundamentalist persuasion). Announcements from sponsors and anecdotal evidence suggest that these sponsors see the academy as a good opportunity. It's an opportunity for business to get into the market and to speculate. Some small-scale industry leaders have seen the potential for future work-force training to their own specifications. Faith-based organisations found this opportunity to shape captive young minds a literal god-send. There has appeared an occasional sponsor who simply wants to make his mark in some way. Lots of sponsors have found the academy an excellent opportunity to gain access to politicians. Whatever the motivation, it is hard to resist the offer of taking control of a school and being given all of its assets for a tiny proportion- or none at all- of the costs. From this perspective, it may sound too good to be true, but it's not! There are hundreds of schools up for grabs.

Once an academy and its sponsor have had the green light from Whitehall, the former school (often referred to as the "predecessor school") is given (land, premises, governance) to a trust which the sponsor sets up for itself. The trust can then operate independently. It runs all facets of the school: staffing including pay, admissions, curriculum, structure, specialism, policy and the governing board itself. Look for specific information about these areas in future blog posts. The sponsor/ trust must have control of the governing body. It need only have 1 parent governor, and need not have any staff governors. Any complaints about an academy (from parents, staff etc) when it is running need not be taken outside of the school, but heard by a panel set up- and even run by- the governors themselves. Academies can pay their own sponsors (or their affiliated companies) for services to the academy, and some have done so. An academy is independent in every way but its funding- we, the public, pick up the bill.

People are unsure about what academies are and how they work, in part because they keep changing. They are no longer for "seriously failing schools" in "deprived areas" (as introduced by David Blunkett). In fact, lord Adonis has recently said that he wants academies to be the new grammar schools. The "city" designation in the (city) academy scheme seems to have disappeared, though this significant change in direction is not reflected in policy. If certain figures in positions of authority have it their way, the Rother Valley could be the test case for the first rural academy! Another major change in practice, though without public consultation is the actual sponsorship. Sponsors no longer need to raise the £2 million. There are varying rates, with some sponsors being exempted from donating any money at all. Anyway, a sponsor's contributions can be comprised of payments "in kind", a lovely euphemism for not parting with the stated amount.

"It is too early to be certain whether the Academies programme will achieve its long term aims," reports the House of Commons Committee of Public Accounts. Since its inception, the evidence has been very mixed and not very encouraging overall. But more about that in the future blog posts.

*though scores of educational professionals have longed to be innovative, if only they had been allowed!

** who gained his title largely for e.g. setting up the academy scheme

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