'Academy status for my primary? I'm on the fence'
The business case for secondaries leaving local authority control may have been made, but what are the specific issues facing schools that cater for under-11s? Helen Ward finds out
Next term, the first primary academies could be opening their doors and Patricia Sowter, head of Cuckoo Hall Primary in Edmonton, north-east London, is hoping that her school will be among them. It was at Cuckoo Hall that Education Secretary Michael Gove confirmed that the policy, announced a year ago, would be going ahead.
Mrs Sowter knows that academy freedoms would allow Cuckoo Hall to shape its own future, but she is wary of it being stereotyped as a middle-class school attempting to divorce itself from those pesky poor primaries around the corner.
"We are not a school in a leafy area," she says. "There is the idea that it is mainly wealthy schools going down this route, but from my perspective that is not the case."
An analysis of the list of 1,568 schools, including 715 primaries, which have registered an interest in adopting academy status with the Department for Education reveals that many are in middle-class areas - possibly because they feel they pay in more to the local authority coffers than they get back. But there are other divides.
Primaries, with no role-model academies to look to, are proportionally more reluctant to register an interest than secondaries. And when asked why they have done so, some say they simply want to stay in the loop. When informed of what academy status might actually mean for their school, it often transpires that they have already decided it is not right for them.
But every headteacher that The TES spoke to had the same basic concern - what is best for their pupils. And not one thought that being a primary school was, in itself, a reason not to be offered the opportunity to become an academy.
Mick Brookes, general secretary of heads' union the NAHT, says there are already misconceptions in the debate about whether primaries should take up the Government's offer. "It is not so much about the differences between primary and secondary as between large and small," he says. "Large schools have the capacity to have administrative infrastructure that they need to oversee things like health and safety, budget and payroll."
David Fann, head of 370-pupil Sherwood Primary in Preston, has found that working out the financial benefits of becoming an academy - in which he has expressed an interest with the DfE - was not quite as straightforward as he had hoped.
Sherwood is ranked by Ofsted as an "outstanding" school and therefore automatically qualifies to become an academy. But Mr Fann says he is open-minded about whether this is the right option for his school.
"Lancashire County Council is telling me that for a two-form entry school the benefit is about £13,000," he says. "But the academy people are telling me that for my school the benefit would be around £90,000 to £150,000.
"Lancashire is a very good authority and very supportive, but I would like to be master of my own destiny.
"I am sat completely on the fence. Three weeks ago I was more in favour than against. I can see the benefits in terms of pounds, shillings and pence, but I also see pitfalls in lack of support, staff not wanting to work for an academy and in aspects of the general school system. It would be a great shame if we end up with a two-tier education system."
David How, head of Beaver Road Primary in Manchester, has similar doubts. But at his 700-pupil school, the benefits seem much clearer and there are more attractive economies of scale. Indeed, there are many secondaries smaller than his.
"I certainly will be looking at an early option to go (to academy status). I have a budget of £1.75 million and I want to work independently from my authority, and I have opted out of some of its services anyway. I think we are a big enough school with enough contacts and expertise to run our own affairs.
"However, there are some principles about academies that worry me. If schools like mine, which are good schools and popular with parents, opt out of the local authority, what happens to the schools that are left in?
"I grew up on a council estate in London and I remember when the council houses were sold off. My dad was against it politically, but he did buy his council house - he'd have been a mug not do because the mortgage was about half the rent and people prefer to own their own homes. But the consequences have been that some of those council estates, which at one time were good places where people wanted to live, are now desperate."
A school with all its own budget will obviously see a change in its relationship with the authority, something which many primary heads value, Mr How says.
For some, the desire to retain the relationship with the local authority is a deal-breaker. Alison Peacock is head of Wroxham Primary in Potters Bar, an "outstanding" school which has not expressed an interest in becoming an academy.
Ms Peacock's reasoning is based on experience. "This school used to be grant-maintained (it received its funding direct from the Government) and it was in special measures, I feel, because it was grant-maintained," she says.
"The previous head and governors had got very focused on a building project and everything else went to pot.
"It went into special measures in 2001 and by the time the local authority came in it took a while to get back on track.
"I came in 2003 and the school was not associated with any of the training provision from Hertfordshire, the payroll was outsourced, the grounds maintenance was outsourced. It is very hard to focus on learning if you have to manage all these contracts. Now, under the authority, I don't feel constrained. I feel I can do what I want to do."
With just 4 per cent of primaries applying for academy status or expressing an interest, it seems that not many currently feel the constraints in the existing system are too burdensome.
But for those that are looking to the academy option, the motivation may not be a desire to free themselves from local authority control. A new primary curriculum is due in 2012 and, ironically, taking up the coalition Government's offer of becoming an academy could be attractive to schools that want to introduce the Rose reforms proposed by Labour, but which were unceremoniously ditched by Education Secretary Michael Gove last month.
However, those with the experience in academies warn that there is a lot to think about. Dan Morrow, vice-principal of the all-through Oasis Academy Shirley Park in Croydon, expects primaries to be cautious and warns that academy status is not akin to winning the lottery.
"We have had primary schools approach us to discuss academy status," he says. "I think it's important to realise that academies get the same per-pupil funding as other schools, the difference is the grant, which covers extra services the local authority no longer provides.
"Also being able to maintain a relationship with the local authority is vital to the success - we are still talking about the same children. But it is about outcomes, rather than the authority monitoring you - looking over your shoulder."
'WE ARE UNANIMOUS ABOUT MOVING FORWARD ON THIS'
Brenda Bigland, head of Lent Rise Combined Primary, Buckinghamshire, has been convinced by the broad arguments for academy status - but says the final decision will depend on the detail.
"I took the idea to my governing body and they were unanimous about moving forward on this," she says. "But we're not going to rush and say we'll be there by September - I want to do the right thing by staff and by my community.
"What attracts me is not the fact that we will make our own decisions, we do that anyway, but that this blesses the fact that we can make our own decisions. That is the critical fact."
She says the money - she estimates that the 420-pupil school would have around £100,000 extra which currently goes to the local authority - would give her more power over the level of service she receives.
There are, however, nitty-gritty legal questions she wants answered, for example, about the costs of land transfer and protecting staff employment rights.
"The primary purpose of schools is learning and teaching. The question every school body now has to ask itself is 'will the independence of an academy allow us to better achieve that goal?'
"If a head feels that the school doesn't have the capacity and it will take time away from learning then I don't think they should do it, but for others, the independence allows them to tread a path they want to tread."
'IF IT'S NOT BROKEN, WHY FIX IT?'
Kevin Bullock, head of Fordham CofE Primary School, in Cambridgeshire, has been waging a war against pointless bureaucracy in education.
Through an online petition and consultancy work, he is trying to persuade the Government to become more hands-off.
But he has decided to step back from academy status - despite registering an interest as the leader of an "outstanding" school.
"I said to the Department for Education 'give me your best reason why I should become an academy'. Their best reason was that I could do what I felt I wanted to, out of local authority control. I said, 'but I already do my own thing here, is there anything else?'"
Mr Bullock says he is not anti-academies, but he is not keen on being a trailblazer, and he was not convinced that academy funding would leave his school that much better off.
"Like most people I registered so as to make sure I did not to miss a trick. I think there is nothing I would gain by not being in local authority control as Cambridgeshire is good, it is hands-off. So if it's not broken, why fix it?"
ALL FIGURED OUT
16,971 - maintained primaries
10,381 - community primaries
2,433 - "outstanding" primaries
427 - "outstanding" primaries that have registered an interest in academy status
288 - non "outstanding" primaries that have registered an interest in academy status
234 - maintained primaries with more than 600 pupils
528 - state-funded secondaries with fewer than 600 pupils.