Mayor - Pupils take priority in academy debate

There is a lot being said in the national press about academy schools at the moment.

 Last week Education Secretary Michael Gove announced that the bottom 200 primary schools in the country are to move to becoming an academy.

 On the same day it was reported that all academy schools in Hampshire had been overpaid by about £300 per pupil.

 The Local Government Association is seeking a judicial review on behalf of 23 local authorities to challenge the Government’s decision to top slice their funding for educational support services in favour of academies.

 With a handful of schools in Hartlepool considering applying to become an academy school, it is a bit of a hot topic at present.

 At the time of writing, Hartlepool doesn’t have any academy schools and all primary and secondary schools come under the auspices of the local authority.

 In May 2010 the new Government changed legislation to make it easy for schools to apply for academy status offering them more freedoms over their own budgets, recruitment and curriculum.

 Their funding would come directly from Government and therefore the 10 per cent that currently goes to the local authority would go straight to the school.

 The new legislation means that parents, teachers and the local authority do not have any means of objection should the governing body decide to change.

 I can see how this looks very attractive to schools and there are examples around the country where academy schools have helped improve attainment in children and regenerate communities.

 But I would send out a very strong word of warning if you are connected to a school that is considering becoming an academy: Don’t be fooled by the rhetoric.

 Make sure you understand the full range of consequences of a school becoming an academy before you decide to support the move.

 There are many things the Government is not telling us and many questions are being left unanswered.

 My fear is that there will actually be a detrimental impact on the pupils if the school does make the move with its eyes wide open.

 We operate a system in Hartlepool where virtually all of schools club together and buy services from the local authority and the council shops around to procure good deals for the schools with other services.

 Things like special educational needs, property maintenance and management, financial services, human resources, school meals, grounds maintenance, waste management, ICT, legal and payroll are all currently provided by the council at a very good rate.

 Smaller but essentially services like legionella control and governor support are also included.

 An academy school would need to procure its own provision for all of these services and more.

 With an academy no longer being in the Hartlepool “family of schools” it would not receive a discounted rate from the local authority.

 Perhaps they would get a better deal elsewhere. That remains to be seen but I assume it would be highly doubtful for every service.

 The impact on the council would also be huge.

 Not only will we not be getting any Government funding to help provide these services, the more schools move away from the local authority, the less sustainable the provision of the whole service becomes.

 For example, the council provides an excellent school meals service but it works to very tight margins.

 It would not take many schools to pull out to make the service unviable or in need of a large council subsidy.

 If a service can no longer be provided, not only will it mean that all the other schools would lose out but it would alsomean inevitable redundancies.

 The people who would be losing their jobs are highly likely to be parents of children going to the academy schools. It must beg the question, is it really worth it?

 Exclusion rates have shot through the roof at most academies around the country and in some cases, increased by 70 per cent.

 There is a lot being made by the Government of academies being open to children with all abilities.

 But what it doesn’t tell you is that there are very little controls over exclusions and, unbelievably, an academy gets to keep all the funding for an excluded child for the remainder of the year yet the responsibility to educate the excluded child then falls on the local authority with no funding attached.

 It has taken more than a decade to get many agencies working together around vulnerable or disaffected children to give them the best chance in life and the best possible education.

 I fear this work will be lost and the strong systems in place will crumble.

 The gap between the top achieving children and the more challenging ones will grow exponentially with the introduction of more and more academies and it will ultimately be the children who will suffer.

 Performance and attainment at all age levels has increased dramatically in all Hartlepool schools over recent years and some of that success is down to strong partnerships with the local authority.

 Schools becoming academies will break up this close working and it will only be the children who will lose out.

 Think twice if you are asked about your school becoming an academy.

 Are the school really doing it for the benefit of their pupils or are they just chasing a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow?