Key questions on academies prompt debate for Round Table in Sheffield

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Leading education figures discuss the merits of academies after 55 of 160 Sheffield schools convert

Question 1. Academies are expected to run as businesses. That brings more independence, but also more responsibility for their management teams. Do the risks outweigh the benefits of conversion?

Chris French: “Academies get more freedoms and protection from being eaten by bigger sharks. The way it’s been run some of the vulnerable converter academies have been taken over by others.

“It’s better to be a converter academy, we have a lot of choices. At the moment we have an expansion strategy to work with other schools. If you are one, why wouldn’t you want a similar relationship with your feeders?

“Heads previously obsessed over performance. Now it’s finances too, the ability to be financially viable and have a strategy to invest in improvements. We now have a finance director and a financial controller, two new posts.

“Previously I don’t think we had expertise of some of the demands such as HR, ICT, payroll and infrastructure while also managing a school in a challenging area. But I have no regrets.”

Rob Moore: “There is a big distinction, academies have big back room obligations and are companies limited by guarantee, they have to be audited and send relevant documents to Companies House, all things a headteacher has not had to think about before. Suddenly it’s become very important to have the right people behind you. Most schools have business managers.”

Tom Draper: Academies are potentially going to have new costs like new and more expensive personnel and accountants. It forces them to look radically at what’s happening in classrooms and the structures of organisations.”

Heather MacDonald: “Sponsored academies were those schools viewed as failing by Ofsted and had to convert. If they form a chain then obviously those costs are shared, but you lose the localism – there are freedoms and constraints.”

Sean Cavan: I think schools always could be looked at as a business. All the activities and functions were always there. But the issues of scale are very important.

“I’m a non-executive director of 46 academies in Yorkshire and the Humber but the voice of the local community is very much heard. The major advantage is that there is enough of a resource base to create a school improvement service connected to a particular development, such as children with demanding needs. You have to do that without losing connectivity.”

Chris French: “The structure of thing is of no interest to parents. I spend more time thinking about the quality of my team and leadership. When we created a trust I was head of four schools, now we have four heads.”

Toby Mallinson: “I agree that it is not the governance that’s important and in many way that goes for staff. It’s the leadership that makes the school a good school.

“The huge concerns that we have is the benefits of scale are already here in local authorities. I know they are outsourcing like crazy. The cadre of outstanding teachers that could go into schools, that’s all gone. What’s good is gone and we are having to rebuild it.

“I don’t understand how chains spread across the city can provide a local touch and I’m incredibly concerned about the money, there is so much bureaucracy created behind the scenes to run these academies, it’s diverting money from classrooms.”

Sam Cartwright: “By nature we are a business and always have been. Most private schools are set up by church groups. We have this back room function that has always been there. We have to diversify in terms of what we offer and hire facilities out much more than in primary schools. But the Building Schools for the Future programme saw a lot of schools upgrade their facilities creating more competition.

“Our swimming pool costs a huge amount in a recession but if you invest you get the money back. We pride ourselves on great facilities and have spent £2m in the last six years. We have got to make money, the school holds its own, we’re 51st in the country in the Times list.

“We never take our eye off the core business but at the end of the day it’s a charity and everything is to enrich the experience of children that come through the door.”

Heather MacDonald: “There has always been pressure to be business-like. There’s less funding, particularly for adults, in higher education adults need to take out a loan and we have a more commercial edge. Jewellery making is completely commercial, it is fully-funded by people who want to do it.

“We will make our college successful by ensuring we are demand-led, noting the needs of employers in the city region. We are student demand-funded but we make sure there is no wrong door. For example there is a route from animal care to the Royal Veterinary College.

“Sheffield’s University Technical College is demand-led, is very much influenced by employers.”

Richard Wright: “Schools and academies are not businesses in the sense of making money. If companies don’t they go out of business,

“So we are talking about business principles, businesses are driven by customers – what do they want? If we see students leaving the education system as a product, are they fit for purpose?

“Businesses pay tax and through income tax they fund schools and they have a stake. There is no problem getting businesses involved in later education, it’s much more difficult in schools.

“Businesses want to be working on a product suitable for their business. The only thing I haven’t heard in this conversation is what does the customer want?

“I will accept the business sector is really poor about voicing what it wants. The LEP’s economic masterplan needs to give guidance, a mix of schools are needed.”

Question 2: The people entrusted to run academies do not always have relevant business experience. How should they access the right advice?

Sean Cavan: “If you bring governors in with extremely strong technical skills in say, finance or HR, they can make contributions alongside teachers to develop a model of governance and training.”

Richard Wright: “We have tried really hard to get the right mix of governors at The Sheffield College, we really target the business sector. Increasingly they won’t be traditional governors, they will be company directors.”

Chris French: “We have one group of directors running four schools and a governing body of seven people.

“We have got a commitment to work with local companies. Owning that process makes you far more cautious.”

Rob Moore: “We look after about 10 academies, many through personal connections, mainly local schools.”

Sam Cartwright: “We have 180 pupils including the nursery and we do most things in-house with help from links to the business sector.

“We have great partnerships. Our parents tend to be business owners, or in areas such as law or private medicine, so they have certain skills.

“Everyone knows the best recommendation is word of mouth. Capita runs HR in thousands of schools. But it might be, for a small school, that a local company can do it better.”

Sean Cavan: “The good thing about academies is the directors bringing in things that maybe the local authorities, who have had the same people for 30 or 40 years, couldn’t.”

Chris French: “Our key partner is still the local authority, absolutely there are benefits of it being there.”

Sean Cavan: “There’s a massive additional problem of a teacher supply crisis coming up. This is where that particular infrastructure can play a significant role with local authorites to develop a coherent strategy.”

Richard Wright: “The real world is changing continuously, the local authority is like a safety net.

“But it is not giving leadership about where we should be going in future. That’s been sadly lacking.

“As the Chamber leader I feel depressed when I look at the opportunities because there’s no one there with vision. We need a more dynamic education sector.”

Heather MacDonald: “Some local authorities encourage their converter academies to work together.”

Chris French: “We need a 15- to 20-year vision for education.”

Sean Cavan: “But it changes every five years. In Finland it’s looked at every 10 years but they hardly dare change it. In 15 years we will have had three governments.”

Question 3. In light of the forthcoming general election, how do you view the local academy landscape changing in the next few years?

Heather MacDonald: “Labour introduced academies for failing schools.

“The Conservatives are starting to say that they may bring back grammar schools, those of course would be academies. UKIP likes grammars and the Lib Dems are keeping quiet.”

Chris French: “We’re in a period of austerity that will put pressure on a system, force partnership working on schools and other services.”

Tom Draper: “I think academies are here to stay. I don’t think there’s the capacity in local authorities to take the work back in-house.

“Even if we did get an SNP education secretary I don’t think they would win an argument in Cabinet.

“I think it will be a full academy process, I don’t want to get into local authority bashing, it’s still got a very important role to play.

“But I do think academies have the freedom to go in different directions, it’s about getting the balance right.”

Rob Moore: “I don’t think every school will convert. If we had an overwhelming majority of parents saying ‘no’, it would be a very brave headteacher who ignored them.”

Toby Mallinson: “There are plenty of heads I deal with who are opposed to academies. We’ve still got grammars from 50 or 60 years ago. I think it’s a mess.”

Heather MacDonald: “I think Government will struggle to fund them. The Department for Education will be £600m down in the next financial year.”

Sean Cavan: “If it went to ‘full’ there wouldn’t be individual academies. They can’t all have a direct relationship with the Secretary of State, they’d have to form chains. There’d be too much back office for a small one too, then you’re going into the equivalent of what was a local authority.”

Chris French: “Running three primaries, there are real benefits. You don’t have to lose front facing staff because there are economies of scale, you can share experts and best practice.”

Richard Wright: “Academies should survive on the basis they do what the customer wants. We get fixated on systems.”

Chris French: “Create an outstanding staff team, the system is not going to make that change.”

Sean Cavan: “Teachers make more difference than any other aspect of what we have discussed.”