Worried about the education white paper? Don’t Panic!

This blog was written by Alison Critchley, Chief Executive of RSA Academies and is also posted on the RSA website.

A couple of months ago I was invited to speak on ‘examining the case for academy conversion’ at one of Capita’s periodic conferences for schools considering Academy status. The young man trying to persuade me that I should leave my home in South London at some ungodly hour in order to be in Manchester for 9.30 on a Monday morning played to my ego by explaining that, “we want you to speak because I’ve read some of your blogs and you don’t always toe the DFE line”.

I think he was referring to my take on the impact of 4500 schools becoming Academies in the last five years on the schools themselves and the wider education system.  This outlined some of the downsides of a highly academised system, including the lack of community accountability and the risks of some pupils becoming marginalised, as well as the many benefits.  Apparently it is a little unusual for someone who makes their living working with Academies to acknowledge any flaws in the system.

Anyway, I said I’d speak.  The conference is this coming Monday.  Should a school convert to Academy status?  It appears they no longer have a choice.  This could be a very short session!

So what am I going to say to the anxious Heads and governors who are coming on Monday?  And what would I say to the Heads and governors of the 16,000 schools that have no doubt considered all previous financial inducements and threats and endless PR about the benefits of Academy status and so far decided to continue to work as a community school?

Firstly, and most importantly, don’t panic!  If a week is a long time in politics, then four years is an eternity in terms of education policy.  Even if the government holds good on its promise/threat that all schools should be on the path to Academy status by 2020, and that’s a big ‘if’, that still leaves you plenty of time to work out how to navigate an academy route in the best interests of your school and community.  The phrase ‘marry in haste, repent at leisure’ springs to mind, but joining a multi-academy trust (MAT) means making a commitment that is permanent and irreversible in a way that marriage is not.  When two or more schools join together in a MAT they become a single legal entity.  The only way a school can leave a MAT is where this is brokered by the DFE, usually because a school’s performance, or that of the sponsor Trust, is considered so poor that they need to be moved to another MAT.  This isn’t a divorce – it is more like having a limb chopped off!

Similarly, don’t be overly preoccupied with being ‘taken over’ by a big chain.  Well-meaning commentators are encouraging schools to choose their future now rather than having it forced upon them.  This, presumably, is exactly what Ministers are banking on happening, relying on a culture of fear that sadly permeates so much of today’s education system.  An alternative way of looking at it would be to ask what might happen if the majority of those schools that have rejected previous inducements to Academy status made the decision to remain where they were.  Could the government really force thousands upon thousands of schools to convert to Academy status against their will?

OK, so now that you have stopped panicking, should you look seriously at taking your school down the Academy route, which for new Academy convertors means setting up or joining a MAT?  The answer today is the same as it was on Monday: yes, but only if it is going to help you to tackle the real challenges that are currently facing schools in England.  You may want to ask yourself:

  • Will it help you with the challenging financial situation your school is likely to be facing (exacerbated by another hike in schools’ contributions to teachers’ pensions, also included in this week’s budget announcements)?
  • Is it likely to assist you with the recruitment, retention, and development of teaching and non-teaching staff who will help secure the very best outcomes for your pupils?
  • Might it enable you to ensure pupils at your school have access to a broad and enriching curriculum, despite the upheaval currently in primary schools, and the narrowing of arts and vocational options implicit in the compulsory ebacc?

Or will it prove a distraction from all of these things?

RSA Academies is unusual as an Academy partner in that we work as an Umbrella Trust rather than a MAT, which means that schools retain their own governing bodies with full responsibility for the school.  This governance model represents a third way between the MAT approach taken by the large majority of academy chains and the independence of convertor academies. It means that schools are able to share ideas and provide support and challenge to one another, whilst also retaining the autonomy and flexibility to take decisions that are in the interests of their own particular communities.

We do have within the RSA family of Academies one MAT and plan that over time more small local MATs will sit under the RSA Academies Umbrella. The Redditch RSA Trustcomprises four schools: Arrow Vale RSA Academy (a High School) opened in September 2012, Ipsley CE RSA Academy (a middle school) opened one term later in January 2013, with Church Hill Middle School and Abbeywood First School joining in January 2016.  The schools serve a clearly defined geographical area; virtually all of the Abbeywood pupils transfer to Church Hill, whilst the vast majority of both Church Hill and Ipsley pupils transfer to Arrow Vale at the end of Year 8.

It is taken a huge amount of patience, goodwill and hard work but the schools and their pupils are now reaping the benefits of working as part of the MAT.

By bringing together support services across the schools and by commissioning external services jointly and from a range of providers the schools are now seeing some financial efficiencies. The transition to Academy status and associated new uniforms and branding, which coincided with a rapid improvement in standards, means that two schools that were previously significantly undersubscribed have seen rapid increases in pupil numbers.

More importantly, by recruiting staff to the Trust and offering training and development across the four schools, and as part of the wider RSA Academies Teaching School Alliance, the schools have been able to recruit, retain and develop good staff who would have a wider range of teaching and CPD opportunities than they would in a single First, Middle or High school.  At a time when the growing teacher shortage represents an enormous threat to schools’ ability to provide a high quality education to all of their pupils this is a huge advantage.

Most importantly and excitingly of all teachers from the four schools are now working together to plan the curriculum for the whole age range, from early years through to post 16.  Not only does this mean that children avoid inadvertently repeating topics that they had done in a previous phase, and give younger children access to subject specialists, but it also enables teachers to think in a joined up way about how the science children do in KS2 relates to their learning in KS3, and vice versa.

Becoming an Academy as part of a MAT can be the right option. But if you do decide to go down the Academy route now, do it with confidence and the ambition to create an even better school for your pupils, staff and your community.  Don’t do it out of fear.