The Academies Debate: Helping Parents to Understand What It Means for Their Children

28/06/2016 13:25 | Updated 28 June 2016

Parents could be forgiven for being completely baffled by plans to alter the schooling system.

Having announced that all schools will be forced to become academies by 2022 in the Budget in March, the Government faced criticism from head teachers, parents and its own backbench MPs and changed its mind.

Yet, despite that the Government does still want schools to change and some will, indeed, still be forced to do so.

Many parents can lose track - among the political squabbling - of what will happen to their little ones.

We've sought out the key points being made, to give you a handy, at-a-glance view of the plan for the future of your child's education.

Academies: a brief reminder

First of all, people will too often rush into the debate without pausing to reflect on what an academy is. So, before we continue, here's a seven-point guide to academies:

*Academies get their funding directly from the Government, having no direct relationship with councils.
*They are overseen by a trust, which is a charitable body.
*Some schools are run by an individual trust but trusts often run several schools.
*Sponsors such as universities or businesses can work with schools through a trust.
*Academies have greater control over their admissions, timetable and pay.
*According to the BBC, 2,075 out of 3,381 secondary schools are academies, while 2,440 of 16,766 primary schools have academy status.
*Academies were introduced by Labour in 2000. There were just over 200 by 2010 but the numbers have grown rapidly under the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition.

What is the new policy?

The Government now says that it still actually wants all schools to become academies in the next six years but will no longer seek 'blanket conversion' - a polite way of saying that schools won't all be forced.

Some will be forced, however. A total of 104 orders were issued in just one month to compel 'underperforming' schools to convert to academies. The message to parents is clear: if a school doesn't perform well - in Ofsted inspections or is below the national average for test results - it will still lose the right to remain as it is.

Two more new categories of school will have to convert:

*Where there are no longer enough schools left getting a local authority's support, the ones left will all have to become academies. There isn't a hard and fast rule on numbers here, the Government says this will happen when a local authority can 'no longer viably support' the schools it has.

*Where a local authority fails to meet minimum performance targets across its schools, all of the schools within that area will have to convert to academies. The message here is that councils which are not up to scratch will lose the chance to look after schools.

In the case of good and outstanding schools, the Government will instead try to encourage them to voluntarily convert to academies.

However, there will be a 'double lock' to protect small rural schools. This means that both the local and national government would have to agree before a small rural school could be closed.

What does the education secretary say about the plan?

How is the Government explaining this to parents?

Speaking on the announcement of the new policy, education secretary Nicky Morgan said: "Making every school an academy is the best way to ensure every child, regardless of birth or background, has access to a world-class education.

"I am today reaffirming our determination to see all schools to become academies. However, having listened to the feedback from Parliamentary colleagues and the education sector we will now change the path to reaching that goal.

"By focusing our efforts on those schools most at risk of failing young people, and encouraging 'good' and 'outstanding' schools to seize the opportunities of conversion, we will ensure the continued growth of the academy programme, empowering frontline heads and school leads, and transforming even more children's education."

So, will most schools still become academies anyway?

The short answer, according to one thinktank, is yes.

CentreForum reckons all bar 3,000 schools will be forced to convert, meaning that about 12,000 schools could be covered by the criteria we've spelled out above. That's not including, of course, those who willfully choose to change and become academies.

What are teachers saying now?

Geoff Barton, head of the King Edward VI School in Bury St Edmunds, was one of the most vocal critics of the Government's policy in May.

Writing for the TES, he said: "Forced academisation was always a misguided policy. None of us knew quite what the problem was that it was going to solve. No one knew why the Government was picking a fight with people running good and outstanding schools that were popular with parents.

"No one anywhere seemed able to explain why the policy was so important when it hadn't been in the manifesto. And no one knew quite how it was going to help people like me to make schools like mine better. So good riddance to a dreadful policy."

It's clear, however, that the change of heart has diluted criticism of the policy, meaning that parents can assume that it's likely that the current plan will stay in place. Many parents opposed 'forced academisation' before the u turn, with two separate petitions each attracting about 150,000 signatures. Their reaction now will probably come on a case-by-case basis.

What's the industry case for becoming an academy?

A blog on the website of the Academies Show, states the education industry case for academies: "Becoming an academy gives a school the freedom to set its own targets, curriculum, class sizes and more - which, for a struggling school, can be the lifeline it needs to pull itself around."

The blog goes on to add that making the switch to an academy gives schools the chance to be run more like a business. It explains: "By bringing in an outside source to oversee the financial side of the school - such as a business as a sponsor, or a larger academy chain - the pressure of keeping a school afloat as well as increasing results is lessened, and the existing school body can focus on education standards, whilst the sponsor keeps an eye on the budget."

A vision of a new system

Jonathan Simons, head of education at the Policy Exchange thinktank, likes the idea that schools will be able to switch from one multi-academy trust (MAT) to another under the new system.

For parents, this means that their child's school could change sponsors if it is not performing well. While this yet to be tested, it could mean a greater choice over the way things are run.

Writing in the TES, Mr Simons argued: "Firstly, it allows schools to join with high-performing MATs not in their geographic region - meaning that effective models of school improvement can reach into geographic areas, where previously they could not go, at a scale that allows them to be effective.

"And, secondly, a model whereby schools can move between MATs, in certain circumstances...allows for a self-improving dynamism in the system.

"Highly performing MATs will be able to grow and provide benefits more widely, and less-successful ones will shrink. This ought to lessen, rather than increase, the need for regional schools commissioners or a successor organisation to engage in mass scale rebrokering."

He added: "It is clear, I believe, that from where the schools system operates now, continuing the logic of the 2010-2015 parliament and moving all schools to academy status in an organised way represents the best structural solution.

"We should unify all schools together under one simple legal status, which maximises the capacity in the system to allow schools to continue to raise standards and narrow gaps."

Is this even the biggest issue for schools?

Of course, it's easy to get carried away and think that this is the only matter up for debate in the world of education at the moment but it's not. Take recruitment, for example. The Government has missed its own targets on this for four years in a row and is wrestling with ways to boost the numbers of people heading into the profession. It wants the best and brightest young candidates to be inspired to head on to sites like EduStaff and kick start a career in education. No matter how the schools are run, that drive still needs to happen.

Recruiting teachers - and particularly senior leaders - is crucial, as is preparing a generation of children that will grow up to a very different - and very digital - workplace, tackling obesity and inspiring the scientists of the future to name but three more topics.

Academisation is important. It's vital for parents to understand the arguments for and against this and keep on top of how the Government wants to drive this change. But it's also important to see this in the context of the education world in general. We live in a world where change is common and that's especially true of our schools.