Academies are at the heart of the business of education

Star Round Table Business Meeting. Picture: Andrew Roe
Star Round Table Business Meeting. Picture: Andrew Roe
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Sheffield is half way through a revolution to turn schools into businesses – and it is creating upheaval behind the scenes.

Now, as well as battling to ensure pupils receive the best possible education, academies must also manage their own finances.

But that freedom – “freedom to go bust” – comes with a host of responsibilities including establishing a board, filing accounts, audit, budgeting, VAT and tax planning, pensions and payroll.

The Star and Sheffield law firm Taylor & Emmet LLP, organised a round table with some of the city’s top education experts to discuss the pros and cons of converting.

Taylor & Emmet partner, Rob Moore, said: “There is a big distinction, academies have back room obligations and are companies limited by guarantee, 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.”

Chris French, principal at Hinde House Multi-Academy Trust, said: “Heads previously obsessed over performance. Now it’s finances too, they need the ability to be financially viable and have a strategy to invest in improvements.”

Academies are independent of local authority control, directly funded by central government and free to increase wages, bring in outsiders and merge with others to pool funds, staff and resources. Many also have external sponsors.

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

In Sheffield, the majority of the city’s secondary schools have converted, while primary schools are increasingly folllowing their lead.

A total of 20 out of 25 secondaries are academies (including the secondary phase of Hinde House 3-16 school), while 35 out of 135 primaries have converted (including the primary phase of Hinde House).

But critics claim academies are privatisation by the back door. Toby Mallison, of Sheffield NUT, said: “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.

“We can’t afford to have a competitive market with winners and losers in education. We built a system based on that before.”

Tom Draper, of Taylor & Emmet, said: “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.

“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.”