All I seem to be writing about at the moment is academies, but it forms a major component of the Government's education policy, so I think that's okay. Rather than bring you a quick summary of the monthly academy numbers, this time I'm looking at the policy in a bit more depth. However, let's start with those updated figures--as of the start of August 2011 a total of 1070 academies are now open in England (infographic available at the bottom of this post) and we know from Michael Gove's speech at the National College for School Leadership conference, that these academies will be joined by a significant number of other schools over the coming months.

Overview

There are two different types of academies. Under the Labour government the academy programme focussed on underperforming schools, whereas the coalition government has so far concentrated on the higher performing schools. The original model was initiated in 2000, with the first academies opening under the programme in 2002. Each academy had a sponsor, such as Harris, ARK or ULT, and typically attracted capital funding for new buildings or refurbishment. Under the new model there is no sponsor requirement and no additional capital funding; schools simply opt out of local authority control and in effect become state-funded independent schools. As well as receiving additional freedoms over the National Curriculum and school conditions, converting academies receive LACSEG (Local Authority Central Spend Equivalent Grant) funding in recognition of the fact that as independent schools they may no longer receive a number of services from local authorities, and are likely to have to source alternative provision.

Initially the option to convert to academy status was only open to schools achieving 'outstanding' Ofsted inspections reports, but this was soon extended to those judged by Ofsted to be 'good with outstanding features' and then from 7th April 2011 to all schools that are 'performing well'. The current criteria takes into consideration a school's three year exam trajectory, comparisons with local and national exam performance, as well as the latest Ofsted report. Schools that are not considered to be 'performing well' can still apply as long as they do so in formal partnership with at least one school that is 'performing well'.

The Current Picture

It is clearly more straightforward for an academy to be created under the new model than the original one, so it is unsurprising that the number of academies has risen dramatically since it was introduced a little over a year ago. There are now 274 sponsored academies and 796 converted academies, plus a further 665 that have applied for academy status. Of these 1,461 applications to convert, 940 come from secondary schools, 40 from middle schools, 446 from primary schools and 35 from special schools. Taking into account all those schools that are either already academies, have applied to become an academy or are in development to become a sponsored academy, we can see that 40 percent of all secondary schools in England are either an academy or on the way to becoming one, but in primary schools the equivalent figure is approximately three percent. Although there are regions of the country where primary schools have embraced academy conversion in high numbers, such as Darlington, Bromley, Herefordshire and Torbay, in most areas applications are low. This is probably due to a combination of primary schools tending to be more reliant of their local authority and partly because the LACSEG funding that they would receive in converting is less likely to cover the cost of purchasing services they had received from the local authority.

Some schools may have ideological concerns about the academy process, but others may be put off by the fact that they become responsible for their part of the pension deficit for any non-teaching staff who are part of the Local Government Pension Scheme. They may also be concerned that under current academy rules although they will be allowed to carry forward 12 percent of their funding into the next financial year, only two percent of that surplus can be revenue funding. Currently schools can build up a significant revenue surplus before it is considered excessive (eight per cent of their annual funding for primary schools and five percent for secondary schools), allowing them to create a significant contingency fund. With the academy financial year running from 1st September to 31st August, those schools converting late in the financial year, particularly those converting on 1st August, will have little time to spend their grant.

Changes to the how the LACSEG funding was calculated were announced in December 2010 resulting in a reduction in the amount of funding paid to converting academies. Academies that open before the start of September 2011 (the start of the new financial year for academies) were guaranteed to receive at least 90 percent of the grant that they would have received under the original calculation as long as they had applied to the DfE for conversion on or before 7th April 2011. Therefore, it was always likely that the vast majority of those schools that applied by the April deadline would try to complete their conversion before the start of the September. This is why we saw a last minute rush of schools converting between 1st July and 1st August 2001; there were 269 new converted academies over this period, which is by far the greatest number of conversion during any month since the programme was announced. These establishment will have to make sure they spend the majority of the funding they receive for their first month as an academy before the end of August (when the academy financial year ends) or risk having any excessive surplus deducted from their funding for the next financial year.

Those schools that applied after the April deadline are likely to find that the financial incentive to convert is not as attractive as it once was; for example in Gloucestershire, Hampshire and Hillingdon, LACSEG funding for both primary and secondary schools has fallen by over 60 percent between 2010-11 and 2011-12. According to Nick Gibb (Minister of State for Schools), this reduction was as a result of local authorities providing inaccurate spending information to the DfE.

Despite these concerns and the reduction in funding, this will not mean an end to schools becoming academies, because even if schools convert in diminshing numbers, more schools are going to be compelled to become academies via the sponsored route.

Floor Standards

In his speech, Michael Gove marked a shift in emphasis towards primary schools and back towards those schools not considered to be performing well. There will be 90 further sponsored academies opening in the next academic year, consisting of 74 secondary schools, 13 primary schools and three all-through schools. It was also announced that the 200 'weakest' primary schools in England will be compelled to become sponsored academies in 2012-13, albeit without capital building investment.

In 2010 the Government raised the minimum floor standard for primary schools so that if fewer than 60 percent of pupils achieve level 4 in both English and maths and fewer pupils than the national average make the expected levels of progress between KS1 and KS2 the school is considered to be underperforming. There are approximately 1,400 or eight percent of primary schools below this level; 500 have been below the floor for two or three of the last four years and a further 200, the ones that will reopen as academies in September 2012, have been below the floor for the last five years.

Although the secondary school floor standard was only increased last year, Michael Gove has indicated that the minimum expected standard will rise each year over the course of the current parliament. Last year the standard was raised from 30 percent getting five A*-C GCSEs including English and Maths to 35 percent getting five A*-C GCSEs including English and maths, combined with the majority of pupils making above average progress from Key Stage 2 to Key Stage 4. It will now increase by five percent each year, so that by 2014-15 the minimum expected standard will be 50 percent of pupils getting five A*-C GCSEs including English and maths. This is a hugely ambitious target and one that schools may question is feasible through their actions alone; although Michael Gove quoted examples of Perry Beeches in Birmingham and Paddington Academy in London, where great improvements had been made in a short space of time despite having a large proportion of pupils from more deprived backgrounds.

Currently 53 percent of pupils in English secondary schools achieve five or more GCSEs at grade A*-C or equivalent including English and maths, but there is a large variation in achievement between schools. In total, nine percent of schools fail to meet the current 35 percent standard, but if the floor target was raised to 50 percent today, 39 percent of state secondary schools would be considered to be underperforming and therefore at risk of being compelled to take on sponsored academy status. Interestingly, of the sponsored academies that took part in the 2009-10 GCSEs, one-third are below the current 35 percent target and over 80 percent below the future 50 percent target. Michael Gove has made it clear that alternative sponsors will be sought for academies falling below the required standard. Speaking in January 2011 he said, "If a sponsor is not doing an appropriate job then we will demand change and, if necessary, we will issue a notice to improve and take it out of that sponsor's hands and put it in the hands of someone who will turn it round".

Academies are central to the Government's policy of devolving more power to individual schools and either through application to convert, although probably at a decreasing rate, or through compulsion through the sponsored route, almost certainly at an increasing rate, the number of academies is set to rise markedly over the next few years.

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