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Don’t force schools to become academies; let them choose, says NAHT

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Converting to academy status can be a positive step for a school. NAHT supports the right of a school to choose to convert where it’s in the interests of everyone involved. We remain strongly opposed to forced academisation, though. 

This week's NAO report casts more doubt over the government's continued plans to force schools to become academies even when there are no available sponsors in their area. 

The NAO report says that as 2018 began there were 37,000 children in maintained schools that Ofsted had rated as inadequate more than nine months before but that had not yet opened as academies. 

What’s most important in these cases is that where a school clearly needs support, that support is provided quickly, meaningfully and sustainably. Forced conversion is not the answer. 

The lack of willing sponsors and the number of schools that have been forced to convert but are miles away from their sponsor schools underlines the problems associated with forced conversion. The NAO report says that there are 242 sponsored academies that are more than 50 miles from their sponsor. Again, that’s a lot of students without a guarantee that things will improve. 

Academies are an important part of a complex self-improving education system, but the government is wrong to assert that they are the panacea for poor performance. That assertion won’t please the leaders of MATs doing creditable work or help schools in search of answers to their problems. 

We need to remove the destructive competition from the structural debate and replace this with a mutually supportive and integrated system that values the right model in the right circumstances. 

While we’re at it, we need to get a grip on the debate about value for money. We’re in danger of creating an exaggerated debate about leadership pay in MATs that will be great for newspaper sales but will tell us little about true leadership pay levels or the value of the leaders in post. 

Inevitably the focus goes to a very few high salaries that are not representative of the sector. I believe that we need to set our own moral compass on leadership pay. Education is a morally and ethically driven profession. This task should not be beyond us, nor should it be taken away from us because of a very tiny number of high earners. 

It is encouraging to see Lord Agnew writing to the chairs of all governing bodies in England to be more rigorous on these financial decisions. As he says, ‘CEO and senior pay should reflect the improvements they make to schools’ performance and how efficiently they run their trusts.’ Rigorous should not mean cheap. Appropriate reward will recruit and retain the best. I am not arguing for a cap on pay or blind adherence to the false comparison to the Prime Minister’s salary. But we do need to set appropriate reference and structural points so that leadership pay is appropriate, fair and transparent. 

NAHT’s position is that there should be a national framework that defines the roles and sets out the pay and conditions of all those employed in our national, publicly funded education system. The public has a right to be reassured that public funds are being used well.

That’s why I’m glad to see the NAO continuing to challenge the government on where and how it chooses to spend the education budget. 

It is well known that school finances are at breaking point, pupil numbers are increasing, and staff recruitment has fallen way behind what's required. £745million is a colossal amount of money to spend on structural changes to the system when real mutual support and integration will get us more bang for our buck. 

I would much rather see a system where conversion was always entered into willingly. This is the only way for things to evolve successfully. But evolution takes years. Today’s students don’t have that long and should not be forced to wait while the system catches up with the government’s ideology. 

If academy conversion is the right path to take, take it. If better support is available within your local authority, choose that. That’s real autonomy, isn’t it? 

NAHT has lots of members in academies. We support them all, whether they are improving outcomes for children by converting or concerned that conversion will have no lasting impact. 

I would echo the advice offered by Amyas Morse, Head of the National Audit Office, who said that the DfE needs to set out its vision and clarify how it sees academies, maintained schools and local authorities working together to create a coherent and effective school system for children across all parts of the country. 

If we’re going to make a difference for pupils, we have to realise that competition is not going to work. We’re all on the same team. We have to work together.

Paul Whiteman took over as general secretary of NAHT in September 2017. NAHT represents the majority of school leaders in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Paul leads all of NAHT’s campaigns to improve schools for everyone, including the campaigns to increase funding for schools and to lift the per cent public sector pay cap.

Prior to taking over as general secretary, Paul was NAHT’s director of representation and advice, a post he held for five years. The representation and advice team includes regional officers, organisers, the advice team and the legal team, helping to promote NAHT’s voice across the country while providing highly-regarded assistance and protection to members when needed.

Before joining NAHT, Paul spent a decade as a national official at the FDA, the union for civil servants. He has a first-class grasp of education issues as well as many years’ experience in the wider trade union movement.

First published 27 February 2018