Challenges of Academy Conversion

From governor to company director When a school moves to academy status, it effectively becomes a company, with its governors as “directors”.  This is a big shift in their role and affects their position and almost certainly their workload alike. They become liable for things like health and safety and pensions – with the latter being a real concern because of the significant penalties that could be levied if statutory functions are not met. And like any other company, the academy needs to be financially viable. The governors need to ensure there is an accurate business plan – and that it is stuck to so the school stays within budget. It’s no surprise, then, that the business manager is a popular addition to the staff of many new academies! Buying services Freedom from local authority (LA) control also brings with it many additional responsibilities. LA’s provide a raft of services to their schools, ranging from curriculum support and access to broadband through to cleaning, caretaking and catering services. Once it converts, each academy is given its share of the LA’s budget for services to schools. It can use this to “buy back” some or all of these services from the LA, or it can source them from another provider instead. Many of them are key areas of school management. A safe environment Buildings maintenance is a good example of this. The school has a duty of care to everyone who uses its premises – such as staff, pupils, visitors, parents and contractors - to ensure the buildings are safe and in a serviceable condition; also, in an increasingly competitive schools market, it’s vital for the school and its premises to project a smart and professional image. Buildings maintenance is a huge responsibility to take over from the LA, though, covering gutters, car parks, water systems, electrical wiring, intruder alarms, adaptations for people with disabilities, and muc more. And there’s also the issue of asbestos - still found in many old buildings that schools can’t afford to replace. As long as the asbestos is not disturbed and is carefully managed, there’s no threat to safety. However, once the LA is no longer around to provide support, the school’s premises manager must get up to speed quickly on things like sampling and asbestos management planning. Managing staff Academies also lose the automatic support of their LA in managing staff. This is a sensitive area for schools. Ofsted focuses sharply – as you would expect – on the quality of teaching, so every school needs to be alert to and ready to deal with signs of teacher underperformance. And child protection is always a major concern, of course. Have the correct checks been carried out on a potential new member of staff? And what’s the right way to handle an allegation of abuse against a teacher? These are areas in which many academies will feel the loss of their LA’s expertise and back-up very keenly. Fair admissions Academy status also brings with it a lot of new administration – not least in an area like admissions. All applicants for school places have to be replied to, places have to be allocated, waiting lists have to be maintained and – perhaps most onerously of all – the appeals process has to be dealt with. Academies also set their own admissions policy and entry criteria – both areas that are fraught with the potential for claims of discrimination against pupils with special needs or disabilities. And to add to the pressure, the fairness and transparency of the academy admissions process have been hotly debated over recent months so schools will be keen to ensure that they are getting all the procedures right. A new path However, although the concerns outlined in this article are very real, becoming an academy isn’t all about new risks and responsibilities. Many schools would say they have benefitted hugely from their change in status. As they are no longer bound by the national pay and conditions agreements, they can take a much more innovative approach to meeting the staffing needs of their school, for example. They also feel they can serve the needs of their pupils much better – with smaller class sizes and the ability to set a curriculum that is tailored much more closely to individual needs. So overall, academy conversion offers a huge opportunity for schools – but it is one which they will really only want to face with the right business support and consultancy services in place to help them navigate a new - and very different - path. Article written by: Rosie Kemp, Development Editor for Croner-i Independent Education.  Croner-i Independent Education is a unique on line information service for anyone involved with the management of an independent school or academy and contains a wealth of information and support for this sector. For more information on how Croner can help your practice and clients facing the challenges that academisation may bring.