Last reviewed 5 March 2012

The academies programme is marching onwards with no sign of abating. In this article, Michael Evans looks at some of the reasons for converting and also for working with a school that has taken the plunge.

A silver bullet

For as long as most of us can remember, successive governments have bombarded the world of state education with a constant stream of wonderful new initiatives designed to raise standards and reform and support a system that is supposedly crumbling about our ears.

The present Government sees its academy programme as being the sure-fire route to improving standards and finally bringing an end to what is sees as a system of mediocrity that accepts a climate of institutional failure in many schools.

In a recent speech, Secretary of State Michael Gove highlighted the fact that there are currently more than 1000 primary schools where fewer than 40% of the children reach Level 4 in reading, writing and mathematics by the time they leave to move onto secondary school. He sees this as an unacceptable letdown for an enormous number of children.

Advocates of academies see them as a golden opportunity for schools to break free from the shackles of local authority control and to concentrate their energies on targeting the issues that will bring real improvement to their educational standards.

For or against?

Michael Gove views the process of becoming an academy as liberation, with schools being given the freedom to make a real difference. No longer will they be subject to the “one size fits all” diktats of a local authority. As a result, the people on the ground become able to make the important decisions that are relevant to them.

They are able, for instance to change the length of the school term or the school day in order to fit in with their particular needs. Some academies have introduced a school year with four terms of equal length, while others have introduced a longer school day and Saturday working.

Academy status brings freedom from many of the constraints of the National Curriculum, coupled with the ability to introduce specialised classes with more personalised learning and innovative curricula. Fresh strategies can be introduced to improve discipline. The new freedoms also give academies the ability to set their own pay scales and conditions for staff, generally leading to better paid teachers.

Of course, the independent sector has always enjoyed this freedom and very successful it has proved to be. However, many cynics view the academy programme as simply a back-door way of privatising the whole educational system.

Gove is particularly critical of those who insist on defending the status quo. He says that it is not good enough to applaud a school simply for its creativeness or inclusiveness when its levels of academic achievement fall below standard. He points out that it is hard for children to be creative if they can’t read properly or speak fluently. In addition, those who are not numerate are doomed to be excluded from the world of work.

Academies, he continues, encourage a culture of achievement and high academic expectation in a programme that — far from being about ideology — is an evidence-based practical solution that has been built on by successive governments, both Labour and Conservative.

Not everyone is quite so enthusiastic. The National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) points out that a school does not need to become an academy in order to have high expectations for its pupils.

“Children can succeed whatever their background, nationality or family wealth,” says the NAHT, “but some children require much more investment from their schools than others. Where a school has a history of under-performance, something dramatic is obviously necessary in order to shake things up. Conversion to academy status is certainly one solution, but it is not the only one.”

The NAHT goes on to observe that while many academies have made significant progress in improving results, large numbers of maintained schools have also achieved outstanding success and rapid improvement. At the same time, some academies have not done so well.

Meanwhile the conversion process forges ahead. Sixty-six new academies opened at the beginning of January 2012, bringing the total to 1580. This accounts for some 1,250,000 pupils, or one in seven of all pupils being educated in a state school. For secondary pupils, the ratio is even higher, with one in three being educated in an academy.

Of these academies, 1194 have chosen to convert to academy status and in an average week the Department for Education processes 20 applications from schools that are seeking to convert.

Successful sponsorships

There are a number of conditions. For instance, academies have to ensure that the school will be at the heart of its community, collaborating and sharing facilities and expertise with other schools and the wider community.

There is also an expectation that all high-performing schools that apply for academy status will partner a weaker school. Collaboration and partnership are now embedded in the school system and this is also the case with academies.

Currently, 335 academies are sponsored. These are generally those that were set up to replace schools that were underperforming. The sponsors come from a wide range of backgrounds, including businesses, universities, charities, faith bodies and successful schools.

Dulwich College successfully sponsored an academy on the Isle of Sheppey and Wellington sponsored an academy in Tidworth, both of which were failing comprehensives. The Mercers Company, historic managers of St Paul’s Girls’ and St Paul’s Boys’ Schools now sponsor an academy in West London, as well as a chain of academies that have grown out of the outstanding Thomas Telford School.

The Haberdashers Company, with its two historic independent schools, now has two clusters of successful academies in Lewisham and Telford, while the City of London Corporation, historic sponsors of the City of London School for Boys and Girls and the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, now sponsors three academies in Islington, Southwark and Hackney.

Charitable purpose — 21st-century style

The Government is very keen to see more co-operation between the independent sector and academies. In a speech to the Specialist Schools and Academy Trust in the summer of 2011, Lord Adonis said that everything about academies is fundamental to successful independent schools. He particularly highlighted independence, excellence, innovation and social mission.

Lord Adonis maintained that increased co-operation would enlarge the mission of schools in the independent sector, end their relative isolation and transform their social engagement beyond the families of the better-off. Not only that, but such support would fall within the charitable remit of independent schools. He pointed out that it was all very well for independent schools to stand apart from state-funded education when the state and its leaders did not want to engage with them, but that was all in the past.

The politics of the present and future, said Lord Adonis, is that the nation seeks the engagement of the independent sector in the setting up of new independent state-funded academies in a way that does not compromise their independence, but renews their essential moral and charitable purposes for the 21st century. All that is necessary is vision and leadership, leading to the sponsorship of hundreds more academies sponsored by independent school foundations. If this were to happen the face of education in this country would certainly change for the better.

With somewhere in the order of seven and a half million children and young people still being educated in conventional state schools, there is plenty of opportunity.