23/04/16
The Secretary of State’s speech of 20th April described the freedoms the government attributes to academy status. Are they really new or has there been a loss of policy memory?

As a school leader I had extensive experience of autonomy and know its power. The most momentous period of my career coincided with my appointment into a Senior Leadership Team. Two major structural changes took place during that period in the late 80s and early 90s.

The first was the delegation of funding under ‘Local Management of Schools’. That was without doubt transformational. Instead of having to go cap in hand to the local authority for every single piece of resourcing or low level decision schools suddenly had the freedom to innovate, to allocate staffing to those innovations, to try things out to get better results and to make long term plans. Schools were able to shape their own destiny to an unprecedented extent.

The logical extension of this was Grant Maintained Status (GMS). As Deputy Head in a GM school I remember the transformation we brought about in our school.

This set of freedoms brought a great deal of new responsibilities and regulatory requirements. Then there was the need to plan strategically – school development plans were a new idea- the arrival of a new, rigorous accountability including Ofsted inspections and performance tables. Safeguards were in place in the form of a strict audit regime and entitlement curriculum for all schools.

We used the substantial additional resourcing provided to comply with these additional responsibilities , taking advantage of the detailed guidance and briefing provided by the government of the time to ensure that we truly understood the new responsibilities and strict audit regime. This ensured that we complied with the plethora of requirements that the Local Authority had formerly worried about.

Importantly the resourcing ensured that we had the capacity to use these new freedoms to the benefit of our students. As curriculum deputy I was able to allocate time – that most valuable resource- to teachers to innovate and develop our curriculum. We worked in partnership with a consortium of schools sharing best practice and giving our staff (including me) access to high quality professional learning working in partnership with higher education institutions. Outcomes for our students were transformed – a fact that was recognised in our first Ofsted inspection.

We were also able to transform the learning environment and the working conditions for our staff. We introduced an enhanced appraisal system which rewarded excellent performance long before this was a requirement. All of this put us in a strong position to recruit the best staff.

The local authority – an enlightened and forward thinking one- adapted to this new policy context and ensured that the services it offered provided value for money and were of a quality which made us want to purchase them. They were part of the solution , not part of the problem. Passing control over procurement decisions to schools made all the difference.

In my book that was a golden age.

After those days I had headships of both LA maintained and Foundation Schools. I have worked within a range of local authorities one excellent, some good, some awful. When working in the latter the autonomy we had still enabled us to hold on to our educational vision. However, they were definitely part of the problem and certainly needed to be reformed at the very least along the lines of the better ones.

All of the freedoms described above are those which have been promised under academy status and which Nicky Morgan emphasised in her speech of 20th April. I would contend that most of them already exist in the vast majority of schools.

However, there is one big difference between becoming an academy for sound educational reasons and doing so because this has been imposed from outside. In the schools where I worked decisions made to take on additional responsibility and accountability were considered carefully by senior leaders and governors in consultation with the staff. The capacity of the school to manage these responsibilities without undermining our core purpose was a key factor. We would never have taken them on if, for one minute, we had felt that it did not align with the clearly articulated vision we had for our school to the benefit of our students. We certainly would not have wanted to become part of a trust which had an incompatible one.

In spite of my wholehearted support for school autonomy I worry about schools rushing into academy status without the capacity to manage it. At best this will be a constraint. At worst it will be a major distraction for schools which are serving their students perfectly well.

If the government is genuinely committed to letting schools be in control of their destiny then let us hope that it will prove that by leaving these vitally important decisions to them.
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