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A different school of thought – what next for the government’s academies policy?

Compulsory conversion of community schools to academies has been dropped – but challenges remain for local authorities and small schools, write Ben Cahill. (A version of this article was published in the MJ on 8 December 2016 – click here.)

The abandonment of the government’s academisation legislation was met with delight by many groups representing schools, teachers and local authorities – but many of the problems the policy was attempting to address have not gone away.

The warning signs were there that this was not a workable policy. From our work with a large county council, it became clear that there were negative implications. Schools were being rushed into decisions about their future without clear evidence of the benefits to pupils. Schools also told us they were concerned about their capacity to successfully convert within the short timescales. In particular, the hurried removal of councils from local education networks threatened to cut-off valuable local expertise without anything to take its place.

For these reasons alone it was the right decision to drop the policy. This does not mean academisation will cease – but this pause creates a valuable opportunity for schools and councils to address the challenges without the pressure of a hard deadline.

Increasing numbers of academies (albeit at a steadier pace) and the growing clout of multi-academy trusts (MATs) mean that councils will continue to see a reduction to their school focused budgets. This will threaten the viability of their school support services and present a real risk of weakened ties between councils and schools in wider community wellbeing, for example connections with children’s social services like Early Help. Councils must stress the importance of such relationships and keep dialogue open with converter schools and MATs.

Our work also confirmed the view that some schools will find it challenging to academise or join a MAT. These schools (most likely small primaries with limited resources) aren’t particularly attractive to new or expanding MATs – offering neither large numbers of pupils nor the corresponding funding. It’s also true that in large rural areas, there simply may not be a local MAT to join. Many small schools were vulnerable before academisation but continuing to be ‘maintained’ in a sector increasingly shaped by MATs makes them especially vulnerable. Councils will have reduced budgets to support these schools and, unless they find new ways to support them (perhaps through partnerships with existing MATs) they will remain vulnerable to financial unsustainability and closure.

Our work was with a large rural county council and its needs will be different to a city authority. There is no one size fits all solution but the dropping of the legislation creates the time required to identify what will work locally. There are already some examples of locally developed approaches.

In Kingston and Richmond, AfC Outreach (a partnership between high-performing schools in the boroughs and children’s social care provider Achieving for Children) offers support and expert advice to individual schools, MATs, and local authorities. In Nottingham, the city council is transitioning its school services into a new model to support its schools to work together and become more sustainable. Other local authorities are exploring options to form their own MATs, or MAT-like bodies (such as cooperative trusts to support maintained schools).

Even before the dropping of the legislation, the National Schools Commissioner stated how effective local authority working should not be damaged and that there should “not be conflict between academy and maintained school systems”. Local responses to the legislation made the challenges of academisation clearer. The time now created by its withdrawal should be used collaboratively by councils, schools and other local education agencies to solve these challenges and find the right long-term local solutions.

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