Academy Status: The question that won't go away

The author is Chair of Governors of Stradbroke Primary School, Suffolk but this article is written in a personal capacity and all opinions are mine

Like many from a personal point of view I have many misgivings about the Government's academies policy. It appears to be designed to set school against school and privatise or at least marketise state education. It is also clearly designed to see local authorities almost completely removed from their role in education.

Like many other coalition policies it is ostensibly about localism and giving control to communities although ironically in practice the academies programme has seen a shift towards central govenment control in Westminster which is even more remote than County control. It has also in some cases weakened links with local communities by reducing the number of community governors and elected stakeholders like staff and parents.

You would imagine then that I would be strongly opposed to academy status but, actually, that is not my view. I think that all schools should very seriously consider academy status and that for many schools it would be the best choice to make.

As Governors our job is to make the best decision for the children in our schools and for our staff and local communities. This has to be a decision taken after carefully considering all the facts and putting our own political and personal views to one side. Academies are real, they aren't going away and there is no reason to doubt that the Government wants all schools eventually to become academies.

So in many ways the question is more "when" than anything else and there are some compelling reasons to consider this sooner rather than later. When introducing any kind of major change there is usually a "carrot" phase where you try and convince people of the merits of a change and even offer incentives. Often there follows a "stick" phase when pressure subtle or otherwise is used.

We are clearly in the "carrot" phase now although there are some signs of the "stick" with continuing to be a state school looking increasingly unattractive from both the perspective of funding and control over areas such as the curriculum.

On a practical level though academies do bring freedoms for schools although in many ways this this is the culmination of an evolution over many years through delegated budgets, local management of schools and foundation status rather than the revolution Gove suggests.

But as with all aspects of life freedom has the tail of responsibility and there is more work for staff and governors to do. Staff, buildings and finance become completely the academy's responsibility and whilst in many schools this gives welcome control for some schools this is not the case.

This is why very many secondary schools have already become or are becoming academies and it looks like in the not so distant future pretty much all of them will.

Some primaries have gone too but for the small rural primary schools in my part of the world typically with less than 100 children the picture looks quite different and academy "freedoms" here look more like onerous responsibilities.

However in Suffolk something has happened that means that even such schools can no longer sit tight and depend on their local authority to provide the support it used to do. Basically the local authority has all but shut up shop, firing so many staff and positioning itself as an "enabler" rather than "provdier" of services. So such as small school that continues to sit on its own will find increasingly that the local authority isn't there to do anything much at all - it won't interfere or control but neither will it help or support.

Many of us regard with dismay the defeatist and what appears to be politically motivated actions of Suffolk County Council. Recently the CEO Andrea Hill said the authority's future was as:

"a consumer champion, like a local Which? magazine for our citizens".

Not much use if you can't recruit a Head for your school or the roof collapses...

But none of this really matters. What matters is that our children get the best education they can and that our communities continue to have the local schools that help to bind them together. Without local schools communities literally wither and die.

Unlike Suffolk County Council we cannot "divest" oursleves of our responsibilies. If we do nobody else will be there to save our schools and communities. We have to act and do this. These are our children, our communities.

This means that we need to explore all options. For many this will be hard and almost certianly not what they signed up to do when they became governors.

In my view the solution for such small schools is both simple and obvious and complicated and difficult at the same time. It means forming partnerships with other schools to create a sustainable organisation and then seriously looking at academy status as part of the "chains of academies" provision.

This provisions allows groups of schools to join together and become an academy whilst maintaining their own identity as individual schools.

For primary schools there are two real options either they group with other primaries or they join a group led by a secondary school comprising that school and probably other primaries.

Both models have pros and cons and much will depend on local circumstances. Sadly some secondary schools still view primaries as the poor relation and imagine it must be easy to run such a school and would want to dominate such a "partnership" that would look more like a "takeover" by the typically much bigger and better resourced secondary. That isn't always the case though and there could well be problems with groups of primaries on their own too.

This is a big responsibility and especially in Suffolk a lot depends on us making the right decisons and maybe taking some calculated risks. But the prize isn't just that our schools will still be there in future this is also an opportunity - if we are up to the challenge - to make schools better and create some real co-operation between schools. Co-operation that to be honest was sometimes lacking even when we were supposed to be part of the "happy family" of the local authority!
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