The number of academies has risen substantially in recent years and the scheme has gone significantly beyond its original purpose of ensuring schools in disadvantaged areas receive adequate funding. This has created both new opportunities and difficulties for those in charge of operating academies.
The early days of academies
Academies, in an English educational context, were designed to be centrally funded schools which were independent of direct control by local authorities. The concept was first introduced by Tony Blair’s Labour government in 2000.
The purpose behind the programme was to ensure a higher standard of education, particularly in deprived areas. The Department of Education’s policy was that a maintained school with sustained or serious underperformance should become a sponsored academy. While initially academy status was limited solely to secondary schools, it was extended to primary schools in 2012.
In 2010, the Academies Act was introduced with the aim of increasing the number of academies and it has certainly achieved its objective. The number has increased from 203 in May 2010 to approximately 4,200 (as of 23rd March 2015), of which around 400 are free schools set up by education charities, religious groups and parents.
Academy conversions today
Changing from a maintained school to an academy is achieved through a process that has been structured to be relatively straightforward and any state public school has the opportunity to apply. The day to day operations of an academy have always been similar to other state schools but there is a significant difference in terms of structure. An academy is set up as a private limited company with the appointed board of directors or governors acting as trustees. The board is therefore responsible for the overall running of the school.
Initially, a private sponsor was required in order to create and help fund an academy. Nowadays however a financial investment by a sponsor is no longer required and the government can cover the entire cost of operations. Conversions have been encouraged by the current coalition government.
National Audit Office report
A report issued towards the end of 2014 by the National Audit Office criticised the lack of government oversight of academies. It stated that the Department for Education was too reliant on sponsors to turn underachieving schools around.
The report also criticised the current policy as regards state oversight of academies by the Department for Education, local authorities and others. Regarding governance for example, it highlighted that while the Department for Education has a ‘fit and proper person’ test for governors in charge of academy trusts, there is no subsequent obligation to carry out checks on any new governors. This will undoubtedly be seen as unsatisfactory by policy makers and is likely to be addressed in the near future.
Despite recent controversies over particular academies and criticisms in certain quarters, government enthusiasm for them shows no sign of abating – David Cameron recently announced the formation of 49 new free schools which are due to open in 2016. As the number of academies grows, it is becoming more and more important to ensure that each of the parties involved in an academy has a defined and recognised role. The onus is therefore on government to clarify and improve the current situation if academies are to continue to achieve their original objective.
For more information, please contact Alex Bottom