Why are there so few primary academies?

This week Education Secretary Michael Gove made a speech about academies. You can read the text here. I thought the speech was surprisingly defensive for a policy that is clearly succeeding. Indeed the speech says that getting on for half of all secondary schools either are or soon will be academies. So it is surprising that the speech spends several paragraphs attacking a supposed "ideological" attack on academies.

The speech also makes mention of an aspiration to encourage more primary academies. He suggests that up to one in ten primary schools have expressed an interest in academy status but much fewer have actually converted. In Suffolk only two primary academies out of more than 200 primary schools have opened but 18 secondaries have converted.

As someone who has been seriously considering a primary academy conversion I think the reason for this is entirely practical and not at all ideological. Contrary to the view expressed by Gove and re-enforced by much of the mainstream media the vast majority of people involved in education, teachers, governors and other school staff are simply not interested in ideology and politics. Decisions about schools are invariably made for practical and pragmatic reasons. The only exception is when politicians such as ministers and councillors get involved...

So if Gove really wants more primary academies he needs to stop attacking bogeymen and take some simple practical steps to make it viable for primary schools to become academies. Many of the reasons that primaries are hesitant to convert are to do with their size and finances and some of the costs and responsibilities inherent in the academy model.

In terms of funding all schools have formula funding that kind of works the same way i.e. schools get money for each child depending on where they are and if they are primary or secondary. Primary schools get less per child. Academies also get to keep the "top slice" that usually goes to the LA in a maintained school. This varies depending on local authority but is 8% in Suffolk.

It doesn't take much Mathematical ability to work out that a small primary school isn't going to end up with much more as 8% of not very much isn't much! And some of the Academy costs are more or less "fixed" such as getting your accounts audited larger schools do much better.

And it isn't just money. Secondary schools tend to be more self-sufficient and often have their own finance staff whilst many primaries rely more on the local authority. Whilst I agree there are some positives to freedom from LA "control" it is true that for many primaries the LA is more a useful service provider than it is a draconian master.

In addition a good number of primary schools are church schools and this adds even more complexity. For example our tiny 100 child primary school has three different landowners. And the attitude to academy conversion from dioceses can be an issue too. Even if the diocese is supportive there are more forms to fill in, more meetings to attend...

Groups of schools working together ought to be one way around these issues but there are problems here too. It isn't possible to make all of the savings that would be desirable without setting up a "multi-academy trust" but this concentrates power centrally in a way many individual schools wanting their own autonomy and freedom are not happy with. Indeed a maintained school converting to academy status as part of a multi-academy trust will end up with less local control than it had as a maintained school. And groups of schools where some are church schools and some are not become an issue too.

So I would suggest some practical steps that the Government could take to encourage more primary schools to convert to academy status:

  • Introduce additional funding to smaller schools to enable some of the fixed costs to be met
  • Increase transitional funding to enable training for staff and governors in finance, property etc
  • Provide more practical support and encouragement from people with experience of primary education
  • Allow more flexibility in the way groups or chains of academies can operate enabling such groups to save money and collaborate whilst retaining more local autonomy
  • Remove the requirement to get approval from the diocese for church schools replacing it with nationally agreed arrangements to protect the church's interests
  • Simplify land issues for church schools and guarantee that the DfE will pay all legal costs associated with land transactions if these exceed the 25K 
  • Sort out the issue of SIMS licences with Capita. Currently they are making converting academies covered by LA licences buy completely new licences costing thousands of pounds when they become academies.
  • Work with service providers to offer more cost effective services such as audit targeted at primary schools
  • Design a model for church and non-church schools to become part of groups of academies
The bottom line is no school is going to become an academy if it feels it will end up worse off with more work to do! Imagine explaining to parents that classroom assistant hours had to be cut to pay 5K to auditors of the school's accounts....

Of course the Government could ignore all this and just force all primaries to become academies as part of sponsored chains. This is what is happening at Downhills Primary school where Gove seems amazed that local people are not all writing letters of thanks to the DfE for forcing its sponsored academy status but actually campaigning against it.

Again he sees the bogeymen of ideology as the reasons for this and this is helped by the fact Shadow Labour minister and Labour MP David Lammy used to attend the school and has become involved.

I think Gove is quite wrong. This is nothing to do with ideology. Local people are objecting to their local school being forced to do something without their consent. People feel a sense of ownership toward their local primary schools in a way few do about secondaries. Gove suggests another 200 primaries will be forced to convert and I fully expect there to be more fights about this as parents and local communities say "who's schools? OUR schools".
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