Academies are publicly funded independent schools, free from local authority and national government control. Other freedoms include setting their own pay and conditions for staff, freedoms concerning the delivery of the curriculum, and the ability to change the length of their terms and school days.
Prior to the 2010 General Election there were 203 academies in England. Minister of Education Nick Gibb spoke at a fringe event hosted by Teacher Support Network and Parentline Plus and praised the success of Academies. He noted that they have been hugely successful in raising standards and for this reason the government would like there to be more. This of course was the thinking behind The Academies Act 2010, which was bought into force on 29 July. It aims to make it possible for all publicly-funded schools in England to become academies
After the election and prior to the enactment of the Act, the new Education Secretary, Nick Gove, sent a letter to all publicly-funded schools inviting them to become academies. Within three weeks, 70% of all outstanding secondary schools expressed interest. Of the 1,567 schools initially expressing interest, 828 were rated outstanding
There has been much concern since the somewhat rushed enactment of the Act as to what this means for our education system. It is evident that many of the academies established so far are performing impressively in delivering the intended improvements. But as noted by Amyas Morse, head of the National Audit Office “It cannot be assumed, however, that academies’ performance to date is an accurate predictor of how the model will perform when generalised more widely. Existing academies have been primarily about school improvement in deprived areas, while new academies will often be operating in very different educational and social settings.”
Nationally, more than 140 schools are expected to convert to academy status in this academic year, with 32 doing so immediately. This is a rapid expansion of the scheme, which up till now has been used to turn around underperforming schools in more deprived areas. The NAO has issued a warning that this development, allowing successful schools to break away from local authority control, will increase the scale of risks to value for money, particularly around financial sustainability, governance and management capacity. Whilst the success of academies in raising attainment is substantial, some academies have had to be given extra funding to avoid going into deficit and a quarter may require extra financial and managerial support in the longer term.
Speaking at the beginning of September, Michael Gove clarified the rationale behind the legislation in stating that, “This Government believes that teachers and head teachers, not politicians and bureaucrats, should control schools and have more power over how they are run. That’s why we are spreading academy freedoms. This will give heads more power to tackle disruptive children, to protect and reward teachers better, and to give children the specialist teaching they need.”
There are also concerns as to what the legislation means for Special Education Needs. Both peers and MPs repeatedly raised concerns in parliament about the impact of the act on SEN pupils. They feared pupils with SEN would find it hard to gain admission to academies, while parents would find it difficult to challenge academies that failed to meet their children’s support needs.
They also suggested that pupils with SEN could be more likely to be excluded from academies than council-run schools, as the local authority will have potentially no role in supporting young people in academies, if they are admitted in the first place. There is concern as to how academies will access specialist services.
The Act has, however, been strengthened by two important sub-sections in regards to children with SEN:
• Sub-sections 1(7) and 1(8) – A Government amendment which requires all academy funding agreements must include details of their obligations in regards to children with SEN – the ‘SEN obligations’. These obligations mirror the governor’s duties contained in Part IV of the Education Act 1996. This makes it clear on the face of the bill that an academy is expected to behave as if they were a maintained school in meeting the needs of children with SEN and can be seen as an important move towards parity.
• Sub-sections 2(5) and 2(6) – An SEC (Special Education Consortium) amendment which was voted into the Act by the House of Lords. It requires the Secretary of State, before making any payments under an academy agreement, to assess the impact on local authority-funded SEN services of a new academy before deciding funding levels for such academies. The Government has confirmed that it has accepted this amendment that it intends to take the necessary steps to ensure that SEN children are protected as the House of Lords intended.
It can therefore be assumed that the education of children with SEN and disabilities was a major feature of the debates in both the House of Lords and the Commons.
A list of all schools that opened in September 2010 and a list of outstanding schools set to convert to academies this year can be seen at the following link:
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