The notes from the public information meeting held in Kings Heath in 2017 are a rich source of information, but we hope you will find the frequently asked questions below of interest. If you have any other questions (and particularly if you spot any errors!), please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org and we will do our best to address these.
- I’m a current or prospective parent – why should I care about this?
- I’m a member of staff – why should I care about this?
- I don’t have children at these schools. Why should I care about this?
- What is an academy?
- Do multi-academy trusts receive more funding?
- Why are seven of our local schools considering forming a multi-academy trust?
- Do academies achieve better results than Local Authority schools?
- Doesn’t becoming an academy allow more freedom as schools don’t have to follow the National Curriculum?
- What will happen to the individuality of our schools?
- What about admissions policies for children with additional needs (SEND)?
- Does a school with financial difficulties face a greater risk of being subsumed into a low grade multi-academy trust chain? Could that be a rationale for wanting to join a local MAT?
- Isn’t academisation inevitable because of the number of schools that have become academies?
- What about the alleged ‘demise’ of the Local Authority?
- How does the Local Authority ensure protection and accountability?
- Isn’t it a good idea to ‘jump before we’re pushed’ into becoming academies?
- What if one or more schools does not join the proposed multi-academy trust? Will they be vulnerable?
- Why do some think the government is pushing the multi-academy trust model? What can be achieved under a multi-academy trust that could not be achieved through other ways of collaborating?
- Are there alternative ways of schools working together?
- Isn’t there an on-going Parliamentary Inquiry into multi-academy trusts?
- Why not wait until the schools consult with parents before I engage with the schools about this?
- The head teacher of my school has offered to meet with me to answer my questions about the proposed multi-academy trust. Should I go? What shall I say?
- What if we don’t like the proposals? Have parents, staff and community members resisted academy conversion at other schools?
I’m a current or prospective parent – why should I care about this?
Many people love our distinctive community schools and are proud that they are all rated Good or Outstanding. Leaving the Local Authority by converting to a multi-academy trust would be a once-in-a-generation, irreversible decision, with significant implications for pupils, staff and parents. It is important for current and future generations to ensure the right decision is made. We’d like the schools to answer these questions:
What are the advantages of forming a multi-academy trust for:
- Pupils’ educational experience and results?
- School finances and money for pupils?
- Staff pay, conditions and retention?
- Accountability to parents and the wider community?
- Protection from takeover by an academy chain?
- Admissions for children with additional needs?
- Protecting community land and assets for future generations?
Why not await the outcome of the Parliamentary Inquiry into multi-academy trusts before taking this major decision?
The government talks about the ‘freedoms’ of the academy model. Leaders of our schools and the proposed multi-academy trust may have honourable intentions and may choose not to make significant changes in the short term. But individuals move on, so it is important that community members are aware of possible future risks opened up by conversion to a multi-academy trust. Some examples mentioned in the Parliamentary Inquiry are:
- Freedom from the National Curriculum Rather than allowing more time for art, music, drama and sport, freedom from the National Curriculum has led, in some academies, to a narrowing of the curriculum to focus on the core subjects (e.g. English and Maths) upon which all schools are assessed.
- Freedom from national frameworks for staff pay and conditions This has led to examples where less favourable contracts are issued to staff of academies, often as leaders of the same organisations are awarded lucrative contracts. In some schools this has led to high numbers of staff leaving. This was discussed at our public information meeting.
- Greater autonomy In practice, staff of some schools within multi-academy trusts report reduced levels of autonomy, as the centralised governance structures of a multi-academy trust serve to homogenise the approach and ‘dilute’ the distinctive characteristics of the schools. If parents do not like how the multi-academy trust is run, there would be no choice of alternative secondary schools in the area, and limited choice of other primary schools.
Some leaders of academies are decent, but, in Birmingham and elsewhere, some have exploited the ‘freedoms’ to exclude more pupils, change staff terms and conditions, award themselves significant pay rises, or even illegally siphon off public money.
Educational experts have raised major concerns about multi-academy trusts as part of the ongoing Parliamentary Inquiry. Many people would like the Headteachers and Governors of our schools to await the recommendations of the inquiry, and for any implications for government policy to be implemented, before making any decision to convert our schools to academies or a multi-academy trust.
I’m a member of staff – why should I care about this?
As discussed at the recent public information meeting academies have the freedom to change contracts, and which can result in less protection for teachers. Teachers at LA schools have 150 pages of protection under a national contract agreed by Parliament every year (the Burgundy Book). When a school becomes an academy, it can change that contract (regardless of TUPE) for economic, technical or organisational reasons. Academies typically introduce a new contract for new members of staff. Not all academies do this, but they have the freedom to do this. An example of an academy contract is from Baverstock, which is only 10 pages. At another Birmingham academy, 8 out of 11 science teachers left because their terms and conditions had deteriorated. Given that staff costs account for more than 80% of a school’s expenditure, this is likely to be an area of focus for cost savings as schools face funding cuts.
Staff at some academies report reduced autonomy in the class room, as ‘best practice’ is transferred across schools within the multi-academy trust.
I don’t have children at these schools. Why should I care about this?
In handing over schools’ land and buildings to academy trusts on 125 year leases, community assets would be transferred out of community ownership.
Currently, parents have a degree of choice in where to send their children, and value the individual characters of our local schools. Under a multi-academy trust (which would form a local monopoly of secondary schools) there is a risk of our schools’ individuality being lost, and reduced choice for future generations.
Baverstock is an example of a local school that has been failed by the academy programme. Baverstock converted to an academy in 2013, has been in Special Measures since 2014, and is set to close in summer 2017. The Regional Schools Commissioner was unable to identify a replacement sponsor after the LEAP sponsors walked away following the discovery of financial irregularities, and there is no legal mechanism for the school to return to the Local Authority. As a focal point for that area, the closure of the school has huge implications for current and future members of that community.
If more schools convert to academies, it may become increasingly difficult for remaining schools to resist pressure to convert.
What is an academy?
Academies and free schools are state-funded, non-fee-paying schools in England, independent of Local Authorities (LAs). They operate in accordance with their funding agreements with the Department for Education. Maintained schools, on the other hand, are ‘maintained’ by LAs and therefore have varying degrees of council involvement. There are some important differences in terms of the rules and legislation that academies, free schools and maintained schools are subject to.
A multi-academy trust (MAT) is a group of academies. Although a MAT is responsible for more than one school, it is a single organisation. Being part of a MAT therefore brings an intrinsic change to the accountability structure of its individual schools which, despite retaining their own Department for Education number, no longer exist as an individual legal entity.
Academies are accountable to their trust board, which is in turn accountable to the Secretary of State for Education. This oversight is exercised through the National Schools Commissioner and eight Regional Schools Commissioners (RSCs). The RSCs’ responsibilities include taking action when an academy is underperforming, making recommendations to the DfE on new free school applications and brokering agreements between underperforming maintained schools and academy sponsors.
When a school becomes an academy or joins a multi-academy trust, its assets, land and buildings are signed over to the academy trust on a 125 year lease. It has to register with Companies House as a charitable company (of a particular type, known as an ‘exempt charity’ as they are not registered by the Charities Commission), which enters into a legally binding agreement (called a funding agreement) with the Department for Education to run the school(s).
Read more here.
Why are seven of our local schools considering forming a multi-academy trust?
The rationale given by the schools for considering a MAT rather than another model of collaboration (according to the letter dated January 24th 2017) is the fear of forced academisation if one of the schools were to be placed in Special Measures by Ofsted.
Academy status is not a protection from being placed in Special Measures, and if an academy goes into Special Measures there is no Local Authority to step in. The Local Authority has a range of measures, resources and local knowledge to support schools that can be put in place immediately (including the legal capacity to oppose forced academisation).
Academies are under the jurisdiction of the Department for Education (DfE) and the Regional Schools Commissioner (RSC). The likely approach to an academy in Special Measures would be to attempt to broker a new sponsorship deal with one of the DfE’s favoured chains, and, if that doesn’t work, closing the school could be on the cards – which is what is happening to nearby Baverstock Academy.
Furthermore, one failing school in the MAT could lead to the whole MAT being ‘rebrokered’ (taken over by another MAT chain).
Although not mentioned in recent letters from the school, the initial letter to parents mentioned ‘From September 2017 the role of local authorities is likely to change further’. See our separate question about this.
Do multi-academy trusts receive more funding?
No, as confirmed in the schools’ letters. If the schools’ application to form a multi-academy trust is successful, they will receive a £25,000 grant to pay for the costs of conversion to a multi-academy trust, to cover legal costs, new signage, etc.
The cuts to funding apply to all schools, whether or not they are academies.
If anything, there is a greater risk of deficit as part of a multi-academy trust, which has to put in place a Board of Trustees and an Executive Head/Chief Executive, as well as support structures (e.g. legal, finance, procurement functions) that previously would have been undertaken by the Local Authority in a way that shared the costs across a much greater number of schools.
There are also non-financial benefits of remaining with the Local Authority, such as the depth and breadth of expertise of its functional specialists (e.g. lawyers), gained over a large number of schools. Another example is in case of an emergency requirement to relocate temporarily on account of fire or flood; in this case the Local Authority is more likely than an academy trust to have capacity within its estate.
Do academies achieve better results than Local Authority schools?
Two thirds of MATS perform below the average, and amongst converter MATS (schools that have converted voluntarily which were Good or Outstanding prior to conversion) 82% are below average. This comes from the DfE’s own data, and there have been other independent studies that have come to the same conclusion in the last couple of years.
Doesn’t becoming an academy allow more freedom as schools don’t have to follow the National Curriculum?
Is it true that schools could be more creative as they don’t have to follow the National Curriculum. However, in practice it can lead to a narrowing of the curriculum as academies focus on the subjects upon which children (and the schools) are assessed.
What will happen to the individuality of our schools?
The schools state an intention to preserve the individual ethos of each school in the multi-academy trust. This may indeed be achievable while current schools leaders are in place, but individuals move on, and the governance structures of multi-academy trusts can act to ‘homogenise’ schools as part of the ‘transfer of best practice’. The schools’ letters state an intention to retain local governing bodies at individual school level. In practice, any power for local governing bodies to make decisions would be at the discretion of the MAT’s Board of Trustees.
Currently parents have some degree of choice in where to send their children, and greatly value the distinctive characters of our local schools. Under a multi-academy trust (which would form a local monopoly of secondary schools) there is a risk of our schools’ individuality being lost.
This was one of the points discussed at the public information meeting.
What about admissions policies for children with additional needs (SEND)?
The schools state an intention to commit to the Local Authority admissions criteria, including for pupils with special educational needs. However, academy schools in Birmingham and elsewhere have excluded pupils with special educational needs or from disadvantaged areas, even if only via informal means. Parents may be advised that other local schools may be more appropriate to meet their child’s needs, for example. There is evidence that children with emotional and behavioural difficulties are five times more likely to be excluded from an academy than a LA school.
Admissions was one of the topics discussed at the public information meeting.
Does a school with financial difficulties face a greater risk of being subsumed into a low grade multi-academy trust chain? Could that be a rationale for wanting to join a local MAT?
As discussed in the public information meeting, forced academisation does not happen for reasons of a financial deficit. An academy chain would want the Local Authority to pay off debts beforehand, so there’s often a lot of negotiating between the academy chain and LA.
The letter from the schools in November stated that ‘Whilst funding will come directly to the MAT, all monies, subject to an agreed percentage contribution, should be allocated to individual schools in the MAT using the formula defined by the DFE for individual schools. No source funding should be allocated in favour of one school rather than another because of financial difficulties or for other reasons.’
Isn’t academisation inevitable because of the number of schools that have become academies?
As of January 2017, 39 per cent of primary schools in Birmingham are academies or in the process of converting (116 of 300), and two thirds of secondary schools (50 out of 75). Nationally, 67 per cent of secondary schools are now academies compared to only 21 per cent of primaries. However, the extent of academisation remains highly variable between regions. Within the primary phase, the proportion of academies varies from 12 per cent in the North of England and in Lancashire and West Yorkshire to 32 per cent in South-West England. In the secondary phase, academisation ranges from 52 per cent in the North of England to 76 per cent in South-West England. Within the West Midlands area covered by the Regional Schools Commissioner, Cheshire West and Chester is 13 per cent academised compared to Stoke on Trent, where 48 per cent of schools are academies.
What about the alleged ‘demise’ of the Local Authority?
As made clear in this document from Birmingham City Council ‘the local authority has a long-term, continuing role with all of its schools, including academies. Birmingham City Council’s legal duties in education in relation to early years, school place planning and admissions, special educational needs, safeguarding and school improvement (for maintained schools only) continue. There is no evidence that the DfE plans to change this.’
Birmingham City Council’s Changing Times report states that ‘BCC remains committed to working in collaboration with a range of organisations in Birmingham to secure the best outcomes for our children and young people. It aims to provide or commission the very best services across its remaining areas of responsibility, which are considerable.’ As the word ‘commission’ indicates, even if swingeing government cuts were to cut back LA capacity to the bare bones, the Council could outsource functions to third party organisations while retaining accountability for these.
How does the Local Authority ensure protection and accountability?
Local Authority (LA) schools are accountable to the LA and the LA has oversight of them. The LA ensures schools are legally compliant, for example they can intervene if a school unlawfully excludes a pupil or offer legal support when things go wrong.
If an LA school fails OFSTED the LA steps in to put a school improvement plan in place. This could involve appointing an IEB (a temporary governing body) made up of experienced educationists, or seconding a new headteacher from another school or even from another academy.
If a parent or staff member has concerns about an LA school that they don’t feel they can address through the school itself, they can go to the LA for support, directly or through their local councillor. The LA typically has a representative on the governing body of LA schools in the form of a local councillor. None of this happens in an academy. There is virtually no oversight because the Department for Education does not have the capacity or expertise. There is no recourse for parents when things go wrong. There is no school improvement support in the event of failed OFSTED. This is how situations like local examples of troubled academies such as Perry Beeches and Baverstock come about.
Isn’t it a good idea to ‘jump before we’re pushed’ into becoming academies?
The government stepped back from its policy of universal academisation in Spring 2016, in the face of significant opposition
although it continues to encourage schools to convert. The on-going Parliamentary Inquiry into multi-academy trusts has received written and oral submissions from diverse bodies in education, many of which have raised fundamental concerns about the multi-academy trust model [naht-submission-to-education-committee-inquiry-april-2016]. Surely our schools should await the outcome of this and for the implications of its report on government policy to take effect before taking this irreversible decision?
The National Schools Commissioner, Sir David Carter, has previously stated that multi-academy trusts of 10 to 20 schools are optimal. In future, the Department for Education and Regional Schools Commissioner may wish the proposed multi-academy trust in Kings Heath and Moseley to take over more schools, or to be taken over by a larger chain.
What if one or more schools does not join the proposed multi-academy trust? Will they be vulnerable?
As of January 2017, 50 of 75 secondary schools in Birmingham have converted or are in the process of conversion, and 116 of 300 primary schools. This means that there are many other schools that remain under the Local Authority, and can benefit from its services, support and outsourced services such as Birmingham Education Partnership (as well as the Local Authority legal capacity to challenge forced academisation). In Kings Heath, Colmore and Woodthorpe are examples of primary schools that are not academies. There are other ways of schools working together to achieve economies of scale, and to share resources and best practice.
Why do some think the government is pushing the multi-academy trust model? What can be achieved under a multi-academy trust that could not be achieved through other ways of collaborating?
The government’s academisation programme is highly political and controversial. In the face of significant opposition
the government was forced to back down on its policy announced in March 2016 to force all schools to become academies. Nevertheless the government’s objective remains to push for schools to convert. Some describe this as a form of privatisation, others say it is a way of taking away funding and power from Local Authorities (particularly Labour Councils such as Birmingham), and trade unions, as the comprehensive education system is fragmented and weakened.
One headteacher recently wrote in an article that he believes academisation is a way for the government to distance itself from the impact on staff pay and conditions of the incoming funding cuts, such that head teachers and governing bodies will be blamed for any impact to staff numbers, pay and/or conditions.
Birmingham City Council’s Executive Director of Education, Colin Diamond, put together a document that points out that other models of collaboration can achieve the benefits of working together, without the risks associated with becoming academies. bcc-school-collaboration-partnerships.pdf
The government talks about the ‘freedoms’ of the academy model. In practice, staff of some schools within multi-academy trusts report reduced levels of autonomy, as the centralised governance structures of a multi-academy trust serve to homogenise the approach. Freedom from the National Curriculum has led, in some academies, to a narrowing of the curriculum to focus on the core subjects (e.g. English and Maths) upon which schools are assessed. Freedom from national frameworks for staff pay and conditions has led to examples where less favourable contracts are issued to staff of academies, often as leaders of the same organisations are awarded lucrative contracts. Such ‘freedoms’ come at the price of the protection offered by the regulations they remove. Some leaders of academies are decent, but, in Birmingham and elsewhere, some have exploited the ‘freedoms’ to exclude more pupils, change staff terms and conditions, award themselves significant pay rises, or even illegally siphon off public money.
It will be interesting to see the recommendations of the ongoing Parliamentary Inquiry into multi-academy trusts, and the implications for government policy.
Are there alternative ways of schools working together?
Yes. Examples that allow schools to collaborate while maintaining their individuality and remaining in the Local Authority include cooperative trusts (like the Learning Trust for Excellence in Sutton Coldfield) and federations. Our schools already work together in the Stronger Together Education Partnership, a type of federation.
There are two potential protections in becoming part of a cooperative trust:
Firstly, the cooperative trust model provides for collaboration and encourages an outward-looking ethos which gives stakeholders a real say in the running of the organisation. This is good for all concerned and can help the schools stay ‘Good’ or better in the same way that collaborating as a MAT might be said to do, but without all the downsides of academy conversion.
Secondly, if the schools do fall foul of OFSTED and the Department for Education does attempt forced academisation, stakeholders will be in a strong position to resist (because it will be less possible to impose solutions upon them without their knowledge or involvement), and the school(s) could insist on a cooperative solution, for example being sponsored by the Schools Cooperative Society.
Isn’t there an on-going Parliamentary Inquiry into multi-academy trusts?
Yes, the inquiry has received written and oral submissions from diverse bodies in education, many of which have raised fundamental concerns about the multi-academy trust model [naht-submission-to-education-committee-inquiry-april-2016]. Surely our schools should await the outcome of this and for the implications of its report on government policy to take effect before taking this irreversible decision?
Why not wait until the schools consult with parents before I engage with the schools about this?
The Department for Education’s process for conversion to academy status suggests that schools undertake formal consultation after submitting a ‘resolution to convert’. This was assessed as unlawful by Birmingham City Council lawyers in 2011. The advice from both Birmingham City Council and the National Governors’ Association is that consultation take place while matters are at a formative stage.
Consultation processes run by schools in Birmingham and elsewhere have varied enormously in format, quality, time and transparency. For this reason we are asking schools to undertake meaningful consultation before they apply to become academies.
Some of the schools are holding informal consultations with selected groups of parents and have held information meetings. These have been forums for the parents in attendance to air their views and ask questions. However, this has not happened across all schools, and not all parents have been invited to be involved in these processes.
If parents and community members do not make their voices heard now, the schools may assume that silence is a vote of confidence in the proposal.
The head teacher of my school has offered to meet with me to answer my questions about the proposed multi-academy trust. Should I go? What shall I say?
We are aware that head teachers at some of the schools have offered to meet with individual or small groups of parents. If that option is offered to you (and if you agree with our points below!), you might wish to respond by saying that we do not feel this approach to be optimal for the following reasons:
- It is an inefficient use of headteachers’ time.
- Only a small minority of parents are likely to request meetings with headteachers, and they will tend to be those with a certain degree of existing awareness of the implications of academisation, proactive and confident personalities, and availability to meet around the constraints of work, childcare and other commitments.
- Given the lack of written information provided to date by the schools in relation to the pros and cons of a multi-academy trust and alternative models of collaboration, there is likely to be a significant imbalance in the information held by the headteacher and individual parent(s) in any one-to-one or small meeting, and a risk that only certain perspectives are shared.
- Sharing information verbally runs the risk of misunderstandings arising.
- This approach does not allow information to be shared with the vast majority of parents, prospective parents and broader community members who do not proactively seek to request meetings with headteachers.
The public information meeting held in Kings Heath in 2017 demonstrated the power of collective knowledge to give alternative views to head teachers’ rationale(s) for considering an MAT over other models of collaboration. The schools were invited to attend the meeting and to provide a representative for the panel of speakers, but, regrettably, they declined to do either. The recent paper from Birmingham City Council is also helpful.
We believe strongly that a well publicised and meaningful consultation process [change.org/p/open-and-meaningful-consultation-around-the-proposed-mat-in-kings-heath-and-moseley] is best way to maximise transparency and equality of information.
What if we don’t like the proposals? Have parents, staff and community members resisted academy conversion at other schools?
There are many accounts of schools resisting academisation), and in each case this has been achieved through parents, staff and community members making their voices heard. Silence will be interpreted by the schools as endorsement of their proposals.
Before the government moved away from its policy of forced academisation, several local councils made clear their opposition to these plans.
For ideas of small actions you can take, read Get Involved