Schools shouldn’t give in to the fear, but should be thinking hard about academisation

thinking-sunset-1024Tom MiddlehurstTom Middlehurst, head of public affairs, SSAT, writes…

Over the Easter holidays, many maintained school headteachers will have been contemplating their fate, following the announcement at the end of last term that all schools must be on their way to becoming academies by 2020.

Similarly, academy principals and MAT chief executives will be considering the implications for their schools. How will the growth of a trust impact on the quality of provision in the existing schools? What new schools should they be looking to partner with? How can they resist inappropriate pressures?

How will the growth of a trust impact on the quality of provision in the existing schools?

There has been a reassuring message from many corners of the education sector that schools shouldn’t rush into decisions out of fear of missing the boat, or being ‘done-to’ rather than deciding their own destinies.

It is right to allay any notion that if a strong maintained school does not choose its own path to academisation within the next year, the path will be decided for them. The Department is very clear that schools have until 2020 to be ‘in the process’ of becoming an academy.

However, while there are practical implications about the number of academy conversions that need to take place over the next few years, the Department is unlikely to back down on this policy.

What sort of academy?

So while schools don’t need to rush to join MATs or feel pressured to act immediately, school governors and leaders do need to start thinking hard about what sort of academy they want to be.

In the national media, academies are presented as a homogenous entity, when the reality is that, particularly since 2010, the academy sector is diverse and offers a variety of different models. MAT structures and policies vary wildly, from very top-down MATs that follow a tight model of school improvement, to MATs, cooperative trusts and umbrella trusts that aim to maintain the uniqueness and most of the autonomy of individual schools.

Some LAs’ knee-jerk reaction has been to assume that the best course of action is to create a new MAT out of existing soft federations and local clusters. Of course, this may be. However, one of the great benefits of an academised system is that traditional localities become less defined. A school in one London borough, for instance, may find it has more in common with a school in a neighboring borough, which it has not had the opportunity of working with before.

One of the great benefits of an academised system is that traditional localities become less defined.

Given this situation, what should maintained schools be thinking about this term? As a school governor of one maintained ‘good’ school and one maintained ‘outstanding’ school, I will be encouraging our board and leadership teams to consider:

  • What defines us as a school? What type of school do we want to be?
  • What are our core principles and educational beliefs?
  • What schools and MATs do we know that share these principles and beliefs?
  • How can we actively seek out schools and MATs we don’t currently know which share these beliefs and principles?

By focusing on these bigger questions now, I believe that we will make more informed decisions in the future about how best to develop and respond to academisation.

We shouldn’t fear being left out or dictated to, but equally we shouldn’t bury our heads in the sand. The next year is the time for some serious thought and soul-searching.

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