October 2010


  • Academy answers
    Against the clock and thanks to a gargantuan effort by the leadership team, Northampton School for Boys converted to academy status at the beginning of September. Mike Griffiths explains why and how they dealt with the whirlwind of legal, financial and administrative hurdles. More
  • Taking a new direction
    While other quangos have been culled, the government shake-up of structures has handed the newly-formed YPLA a larger than expected role. Christine Tyler explains what its future relationship with schools, colleges and LAs is likely to be. More
  • Internet classrooms
    What will happen when learning online is more accessible, flexible and rewarding than traditional methods? Tim Nash looks at the cyber-school movement in the US and the challenges and opportunities for UK schools and colleges. More
  • A new combination
    Abbeyfield School has introduced an innovative cross-curricular approach to teaching at Key Stage 3 with the ‘Humanities Wheel’. David Nicholson explains. More
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Against the clock and thanks to a gargantuan effort by the leadership team, Northampton School for Boys converted to academy status at the beginning of September. Mike Griffiths explains why and how they dealt with the whirlwind of legal, financial and administrative hurdles.

Academy answers

The change to academy status for Northampton School for Boys is a natural step forward. We have always had an independent mindset and a strong belief that we know our school and students and what is best for them.

In 1992, we were one of the first schools in the country to become grant-maintained (GM) and, although we always got on well with the local authority, we knew academy status would help us achieve what we wanted. So it came as no surprise to anyone when we decided to be among the first to convert to an academy.

People asked whether we were worried about the association with the existing academies and their past as failing schools, but this is the way that all schools will go. We know from discussion with the DfE that academy status will eventually be available to all schools.

We had relatively very few battles or obstacles to overcome as everyone – from the local authority to parents, staff and members of the community – just assumed that we would become an academy once it became a possibility. Had we not gone GM nearly 20 years earlier we might not have wanted or been in a position to be a pioneer this time, but we saw advantages to being in the first wave.

We knew that the Department for Education would be full of good intentions and support because it is keen for this policy to work, though few guidelines had been drawn up. This suited us, as we were able to shape and influence development.

Spreading the word

The school officially registered an interest in academy status following an emergency governors’ meeting in June and consultation began. Parents were alerted by text message to read an important announcement on our website and we put out a press release which led to three days of coverage in the local papers.

We were given a link person at the DfE with whom we could deal directly. On 20 June we were told that the DfE was about to name schools which had registered an interest and asked if we wanted to be removed from the list – which seemed ridiculous as our plans were already well known and we had no reason not to want our school to be named.

Locally the news was met with huge indifference. Only one parent voiced any concerns, as he was worried that a sibling currently in year 4 might not be able to join his older brother here. We were able to give reassurance that our admissions policy would remain the same.

We allayed any fears the staff had over some of the concerns expressed about possible changes to conditions of service. We have 190 teaching and support staff and only four were ideologically opposed to academy status because they believed it was not the right thing to do for education. And they all turned up for work as normal in September.

The summer was hectic and we could not have become an academy by 1 September without the commitment of the senior leadership team, in particular the deputy head, Oliver Harris, who had only one day off all summer.

Charitable status

The first thing we did was to set up a company with charitable status, called Northampton School for Boys. We obtained a certificate of incorporation of a private limited company from Companies House, which involved filling in a form and naming the members – in this case, the head, and chair and vice-chair of governors.

The company is limited by guarantee, which means that there is no share capital for the people that run it and it is created under the Companies Act of 2006, so in some ways it is a process not really designed for schools.

We had a memorandum of association and completed the articles of association, which stipulates how the school will be run and includes matters relating to the role of the governors; how big the governing body will be, how governors are appointed, their voting rights and so on. It also sets out our policies on issues such as admissions and special needs. We have to apply the same rules on these as every other school.

We had to establish links with the Young People’s Learning Agency (YPLA), as that is how we will access our budget, and enter into a funding agreement with the secretary of state. This proved slightly problematic because not all of our funding comes to the school via the YPLA.

We wanted assurances in writing that we would continue to receive our correct specialist schools funding that is still to be routed through the LA. At first there was reluctance by the DfE to sign any sort of agreement about funding but, just days before the deadline, we received the answer we sought.

There were other niggling problems to iron out. Every school has a DfE number and the department wanted to issue us with a new one to reflect the change of status. We refused because we didn’t consider this to be a ‘fresh start’ for the school but a continuation of our work, and there was a risk of confusion and information being lost. Eventually were allowed to keep our number.

It was also suggested that we change ‘school’ in our name to ‘academy’ but our name is part of our strong brand and I made it clear that keeping Northampton School for Boys was non-negotiable.

We also had to sort out data protection issues. According to the Data Protection Act, information cannot be transferred from one institution to another. There seemed to be an expectation that every piece of information about the school and all the online data we provide for parents on pupils would have to be input again, from scratch. We raised this with the Information Commissioner’s Office who said we could access and use the existing data – another victory for common sense.

We are in an unusual position because the land and buildings are owned by the old Grammar School Foundation which leases them to the school. To meet the requirements of academy status, a new 125-year lease was drawn up.

No new money

August was spent dashing around, getting forms and letters signed and, if someone was away, finding someone else who was authorised to do it. We had to open new bank accounts, after winding down the old ones, and draft a budget for the coming 12 months, which is difficult when no one can tell you your income beyond next April.

It should be made clear that there is no new money in gaining academy status. We will get back a significant sum that is presently removed by the LA but that will largely be used to buy back services. What we will be able to do is determine our own spending priorities, not follow those of county hall. These will include continuing our present partnerships with ‘improving schools’.

Overall, the process was fairly painless and we accomplished in a few weeks what would normally take three or four months. But then, as a former grant-maintained school nothing about this was completely new or unfamiliar to us. Schools without this experience might find it more of a challenge.

Is it worth the effort? We certainly think so, as it puts the money and the decision-making nearer to the learner, and allows us to take full responsibility for the education of pupils in our school.

  • Mike Griffiths is ASCL Membership and Communications Officer and head of Northampton School for Boys.

People in a meeting