So, I went to the meeting at our sons’ primary school last night. We’d had a reassuring letter from the headteacher in reply to a letter we wrote last week, confirming there were no plans to rush into a decision, so in the end I didn’t submit the questions as drafted in my previous post.
That said, the meeting was less reassuring, though not through any fault of our headteacher. The impression I got was that, considered in a vacuum, the school would probably prefer not to go academy. However, there are reasons why we may end up being semi-forced into doing so. Basically, it ends up being all about the money.
Following the money
Upon becoming an academy, the school would receive the money that is currently “top-sliced” by the local education authority (LEA) – Bromley – to run borough-wide services. The Department for Education has a handy calculator for schools to work out how much they’ll get, and for our school it comes out at about a quarter of a million quid.
From that, the school would have to meet additional costs for services currently provided by the LEA, and as yet it isn’t possible to work out what these costs would be. However, the general perception was that the school would come out slightly ahead, as the governing body considers the current LEA funding formula to be unfair, penalising us for our lower levels of deprivation and SEN, and we don’t use a number of LEA services.
However, this is where the push for early conversion becomes very strong. The LEA is currently revising its funding formulas for future years so that the amount that is top-sliced is reduced (though without reducing the amount the LEA actually receives). This means that if we delay conversion until after this year, we lose most of the funding benefits of converting.
(Now, in a blinding moment of epiphany, I see why Michael Gove was so keen to rush this legislation onto the statute books: so that LEAs did not have time to adjust their budgets before the first wave of conversions hit them.)
So, that’s the big “push” factor. Really that one is likely to trump all others.
Other factors and implications
Some other points that came up last night:
- Admissions. Academies have control over their admissions. This means they can no longer be required by the LEA to take children who have been excluded from other schools. But this in turn means that those schools which remain within LEA control will have to take more children who are perceived to be “difficult”. On the one hand, this is a “push” factor for our school to avoid this fate by going academy. On the other, our headteacher spoke of her “moral concerns” over the effect of this on other schools.
- Impact on other primary schools. As mentioned above, our headteacher has “moral” and “professional” concerns over the effect of academisation on other schools in the borough. There are 77 primary schools in the London Borough of Bromley, and only a small minority are as well placed as ours to convert to academy status. The risk is of a fragmented system in which smaller schools are left to deal with the children the academies don’t want, on sharply reduced LEA funding (indeed, the LEA will probably barely exist in its current form if enough schools opt out).
- School budget cuts. As a more general political point, the government has been trumpeting its commitment to maintain school budgets and not to impose cuts on schools. However, our headteacher pointed out this only relates to schools’ “core” budgets. A large proportion of our income comes from additional grants – and these have disappeared overnight.
- Secondary schools. Our headteacher believes that all Bromley secondary schools will become academies quite quickly. They used to be grant-maintained schools under the last Tory government, and so they are comfortable with that status and the additional responsibilities it brings. (Which means a return to the days when Bromley was notorious for the number of children who were unable to find a secondary school place anywhere in the borough and were forced to cross boundaries to somewhere that would take them. The fear has to be that a similar situation will arise at primary level, at an age where children are far more vulnerable and far less able to deal with travelling long distances to school.)
- Outside pressures. It remains to be seen what pressure the DfE will put on schools like ours – which are, on the face of it, prime candidates for conversion. It is inconceivable that Michael Gove will just sit back and leave it to schools to decide in their own good time. Once the first wave of conversions has been processed, the DfE will no doubt start a steady drumbeat about the benefits of conversion (and, in a more veiled way, the dangers of lagging behind). In addition, local secondary schools are likely to apply some pressure also, as they are already suggesting they could provide services to local primary school academies as a way of sharing the additional costs of independence.
- Attitude of parents. My assessment of the attitude of parents at the meeting was that people were not gung-ho for academy conversion and had concerns about the effects on the school and on children. That said, the headteacher’s concerns about the effect on other schools seemed to have very little traction: I suspect most people will judge the proposal entirely on its benefits (or otherwise) for our school and our school alone, in particular the financial benefits.
The school expects to have the information it needs to make an informed decision on conversion by December. Consultation will then take place in the spring term, and our headteacher expects this to be extensive. If a decision is made to convert, then it will probably take effect on 1 September 2011.
If any action is to be taken to head off conversion to academy status, it will therefore need to be taken quickly. I hope to discuss this in more detail in my next post.