The Business Legal Services Blog

Converting to Academy status – will it help failing schools?

England’s underperforming schools will soon face ‘tough new measures’ under the new Education Bill, which looks to provide greater power for governing bodies to convert struggling schools into academies.

Issues to consider: While the new rules may be seen as a promising approach at the outset, there are a number of issues that need to be taken into consideration:

  • We have yet to see evidence that proves academies are working; not all academies have reached a good or outstanding status, some are failing, so switching to an academy structure may not be a quick fix to the problem.
  • Measuring the improvement made in academies and in particular chains is challenging. The schools joining the chain may be outstanding or failing or indeed somewhere in between and therefore measuring progress between chains without knowing exactly the position of each academy within the chain is difficult. The Government is experimenting with some initial measurement techniques including “value-added” performance scores.

Lost in the middle? In the midst of such transformation, we could be at risk of seeing some schools left behind. It seems to me that those that are not deemed as outstanding or failing will be lost in the middle, and any school left with the Local Education Authority will have less funding than others, but where is the evidence that only by forming an academy can educational improvements be made? Some academy sponsors are indeed better than others and achieve better results, but the KPIs are not yet available for us to identify why this is the case.

Additional legal requirements: Schools that fall victim of rapid transformation into a new legal entity will face responsibilities far more reaching than in their current form. As exempt charities limited by guarantee, they will need to meet the requirements of both the Companies and Charities Acts.

Good governance: The most significant problems are often encountered with their Governance arrangements. A good school board needs to have a diverse mix of skill sets, experience and business knowledge. As an advisor working closely with schools I see many excellent examples of well-balanced and accountable boards supporting their schools to achieve great educational outcomes for children. Unfortunately, I also see cases where poor governance acts as an active hindrance to the school’s performance, in some instances leading to a breakdown in the relationship between trustees and school management. This approach does not ultimately lead to better educational outcomes for children.

Dealing with rapid growth: The sector has already had a period of being overwhelmed with growth. In December 2014 there were 4,344 academies open which includes 50% of all secondary schools in England. Compare this to just 203 academies in England in July 2010. With further rapid expansion it needs to be considered how the Education Funding Authority (EFA) will be able to both continue to give valuable support to academies and perform their regulatory function. Overall only time will tell whether the improvements needed in failing or coasting schools can be achieved through academy status, but one thing is for sure there are a number of considerations to be made before following this approach.

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