In an attempt to accelerate the academy programme, the Government will today confirm that the eligibility criteria for schools wishing to convert will be widened.

Yesterday, in a speech to the Church of England Academy Family Conference, Lord Hill (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Schools) stated:

In the coming days, in the next stage of the expansion of the Academies programme, we will also explain how the next wave of schools – those that are good with outstanding features – will be able to apply for academy freedoms.

This will be confirmed later today by Michael Gove, who will also say:

We know that the best way of improving schools is by getting the professionals who have already done a brilliant job to spread their wings. That is why we are now allowing more schools to benefit by allowing all schools to apply for academy status, if they are teamed with a high-performing school.

So, the opportunity to convert to academy status will now include schools with Ofsted inspection reports that conclude that they are either Outstanding or Good with Outstanding features, and any school that is working in partnership with a school rated as Outstanding or Good with Outstanding features. Schools will also be able to convert to academy status if the join an existing academy trust with a proven track record of school improvement. Applications for Outstanding special schools will open from January 2011.

Earlier this month, Michael Gove, in a speech to the National Conference of Directors of Children's and Adult Services, asked local authorities to identify weak schools in their areas that would benefit from sponsored academy status. By 'weak' he indicated that he meant schools where:

  • Attainment is low and pupils progress poorly
  • The most recent Ofsted judgement is that the school is eligible for intervention or is merely satisfactory
  • There is a record of low attainment over time
  • Pupils in secondary schools achieve poorly compared to schools with similar intakes

He went on to say:

But these should be regarded as guidelines, not rigid criteria. Where schools fall outside these benchmarks but local authorities consider that schools would still benefit from the involvement of sponsors, I would encourage you to make proposals for the conversion of those schools.

It is worth noting that the current floor for attainment and progression will be raised next year--the details of which we be laid out in next week's Education White Paper--so we are likely to see a greater number of schools falling into the satisfactory or weak criteria. If local authorities do not convert schools to academy status when it is the school's best interest, Michael Gove made it clear that the Department would itself act:

For some years, we have also had powers on the statute book for the Secretary of State to intervene directly in failing schools. The new Academies Act enables me to make an Academy Order in respect of any school that is eligible for intervention. This includes, specifically, schools that Ofsted has judged to require special measures or significant improvement or which have failed to respond to a valid warning notice. I will be ready to use this power in the months ahead where I judge that academy status is in the best interests of an eligible school and its pupils, and where it has not been possible to reach agreement on a way ahead with the local authority, the school or both.

Although schools that "Ofsted has judged to require special measures or significant improvement or which have failed to respond to a valid warning notice" may be forced into academy status, Lord Hill made it clear that this would not apply to all schools:

It is permissive, not coercive. Some schools might not want, ever, to go down the academy route. They might feel that their relationship with their local authority is so good that they don't want to lose it. Or that greater freedom and control over their budgets, staffing and the curriculum aren't going to help them give children the best possible chance to succeed. If that is the case, we fully respect that.

When schools choose to become academies and opt out of local authority control, they take with them a proportion of the funding that the local authority reserved to spend on central services for schools in the region. The changes discussed above will inenvitably lead to a greater number of schools converting to academy status, which will probably lead to a scaling back of local authority services as their funds diminish.

Schools that opt out of local authority control will need to source a range of services that have traditionally been provided by the local authority, such as payroll, legal, personnel and school improvement services. For some schools, particularly those in the primary sector, the cost of sourcing these services is likely to exceed the additional funding they would receive in becoming an academy, but for others it may be an attractive way of counteracting any reduction in funding over the next four years.

Since the start of this school year, 144 academies have opened. This includes 80 from the new academy model and a further 64 sponsored academies that have replaced schools that were failing.

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