Academisation: Don’t put your head back in the sand

Plans to force all schools to become academies by 2022 failed to make this week’s Queen’s Speech, confirming one of the speediest and most dramatic policy U-turns in recent months. But school leaders need to avoid using this development as an excuse to put their heads back in the sand on academisation.

Even before the white paper containing the controversial plan was published it was clear that the Secretary of State and the Department for Education were aiming to convert as many schools into academies as possible. They had strategies already in place to make it happen - strategies ranging from enticing good and outstanding schools with the promise of autonomy and forcing failing schools to convert, as well as developments such as the National Funding Formula, ensuring that funding goes directly to all schools. The U-turn hasn’t changed those policy realities in any way.

Perhaps the department was taken aback by the vociferous criticism when the forced academisation plan was unveiled. Maybe they thought that they had already made their intentions very clear and that the announcement was merely a confirmation of where all the policy - and all the rhetoric - was leading. But the direction of policy should have been very clear to everyone some time ago.

I have no doubt that prior to the white paper, the department, using the strategies mentioned above, thought that about 80 per cent of schools would be academies by 2020, with 20 per cent remaining in local authority control. And with all the responsibilities and issues local authorities face their support and services would come under huge pressure and in many cases crumble. That situation simply wouldn’t be sustainable.

The solution was to force academisation – to skip a second phase involving three years of hard work promoting and pushing schools to become academies and going straight to phase three – making all schools academies. The problem with change is that you have to ‘go through it’ rather than around it. Dodging phase two was doubtless attractive to the department, but in the end it was a naïve move. Now we have a confirmed U-turn. Or do we? Well in terms of forced academisation we do, but in reality we have simply gone back to phase two.

I am an advocate of academisation - as vice chair of a multi-academy trust I have seen the positive impact a well-run MAT can have. However, I understand why some people aren’t advocates and don’t feel that it is the right thing for their school. I am not a believer in there being ‘one way’: mixed economies are healthy and actually when it comes to it we shouldn’t forget that all outstanding schools and academies share common features - outstanding leaders (including governors) and outstanding teachers – regardless of their status.

But let’s not take our eyes off the big picture or avoid being pragmatic about the stark reality facing the school system. School leaders and governors should still be seriously exploring their options regarding academisation, asking questions and seeking out independent advice.

In terms of legislation compulsory academisation has been shelved, but we shouldn't let that fact encourage us to put our heads back in the sand. We’re still moving towards a fully academised system - we’ll just get there by a slightly different route.

Phil Haslett
Business Development Director, Best Practice Network and Director for the Olympus Academy Trust in Bristol.

Best Practice Network can advise on the academy conversion process.

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