February 2011


  • Digital dangers
    Recent research shows that many schools feel they are ill-equipped to train staff in e-safety. Julie Nightingale looks at what schools can do to improve teachers’ understanding of online risks. More
  • Freedom and choice or a heavy burden?
    Half of ASCL members at the autumn information conferences said they were considering academy status but were still undecided. Here, Brian Rossiter explains why his school has opted to take the academy route… More
  • Joining forces
    Closing a school brings a raft of practical headaches as well as a heavy emotional toll, as Peter Crowe found out when he oversaw the federation and eventual closure of a neighbouring school 18 months ago. More
  • Ensuring natural selection
    In December’s Leader, Richard Fawcett gave his top tips for writing an application that gets noticed. Here, he looks at what you can do to ensure you make the right impression on the interview day. More
  • Be better together
    The schools white paper has set out plans for a national network of teaching schools. Steve Munby of the National College, which is playing a major role in the initiative, outlines the vision and answers some key questions. More
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Half of ASCL members at the autumn information conferences said they were considering academy status but were still undecided.

Here, Brian Rossiter explains why his school has opted to take the academy route...while Peter Downes argues that, by expanding the programme, the government is fatally fragmenting the school system.

Freedom and choice

The writing was on the whiteboard well before the new government took power. The move to create a new academy structure had been well telegraphed, as had the need for massive cuts in public expenditure.

Our local authority (LA) embarked on a massive reduction in staffing and services. The education sector was unlikely to be protected and we foresaw an increase in costs for LA services.

As a community school we knew our budget was going to come under severe pressure. Whatever provision we traditionally used to support school improvement would no longer be available. We are deemed ‘satisfactory’ by Ofsted and even though our outcomes have improved we will be vulnerable at our next inspection.

All of these factors will have an impact on our service to the community.

We want to be in control of our own destiny so we took the decision to follow a path to academy status that will protect some elements of our budget. It offers an opportunity to work as a collective with other schools and academies and to support further improvements in standards through active collaboration.

Most importantly the decision puts Valley in the driving seat, controlling the pace of change rather than being controlled by it.

As a satisfactory school, we required a sponsor if we were to convert. There is much n nonsense written about this element of the academy process and horror stories abound, some apocryphal, some true. In the original (Labour government) model, sponsors swept in and took over schools, often detached from other local schools and the community. Working conditions altered as did the working year.

This is not what the new model academies are about and it is certainly not how we wish to operate.

We sought a sponsor whose principles matched ours; one who believes that the students are paramount, values collaboration and recognises the service that the academy offers to the local community. We sought a partnership of equals where our context and individuality are not subsumed into a 100 per cent sponsor model; one where all in the partnership have something to offer the group.

I was clear that the existing employees at Valley should be protected and, as such, sought a sponsor who would maintain links with the trade unions and continue to uphold the School Teachers’ Pay and Conditions Document (STPCD) and the National Joint Council (NJC) conditions of service.

I was also clear that we would not do anything that could be detrimental to a school in a neighbouring community.

The Outwood Grange Academies Trust matched our aspirations and we asked to join their growing chain of schools, because they believe in the things that we do.

I view the move to be a ‘win-win-win’ situation. The existing school community will win as we increase the rate at which we improve in partnership with the trust.

The Outwood Grange family of schools will win as a result of sharing our expertise and having more opportunities to share knowledge and experience across the whole family.

And future generations of students and the wider Worksop community will win by having an increasingly successful academy in its midst, creating more opportunities and improving the life chances for our young people, however vulnerable or advantaged they might be.

Let the politicians fight and squabble among themselves. Let the pragmatists find solutions. In this new education environment we should be putting partnerships and collaboration before competition. Why? Because the nation’s students come first and they should all be given the opportunity to excel.

  • Brian Rossiter is head of the Valley School, Worksop, north Nottinghamshire.

or a heavy burden?

In November 2009, Education Secretary Michael Gove made his intentions clear: “My aim is to transform state education in this country irreversibly for the better.” He has set about that task with what the schools white paper calls “fierce energy”.

However, all involved in converting to an academy should know the risks and responsibilities they are taking on and be aware of the impact that their decision will have on pupils in other schools.

Mr Gove claims to want to reduce central interference and he alleges that academies will have more freedoms. But are these freedoms advantageous or even desirable?

Freedom from the National Curriculum

In 1988 the National Curriculum (NC) was a good idea. It aimed to reduce the variability in what pupils were taught and protected those pupils who move schools during their career.

Progressively, governments of both colours made the NC more prescriptive, specifying not only what should be taught but how.

If freedom from the National Curriculum is desirable, it should be available to all schools. It is ridiculous that currently the ‘best’ schools and the ‘worst’ schools can be free from the NC but the bulk of schools in the middle have to follow it. The reward for doing well is to be freed from it and that is also a reward for doing badly.

Freedom from the School Teachers’ Pay and Conditions

The current structure offers governors the flexibility to meet the particular circumstances of their school. Freedom from the STPCD could cause salaries to go down. Who knows what a new head and different governors might decide if money is tight?

This freedom is potentially divisive both within a staffroom, if certain individuals receive preferential treatment outside the structure, and between schools, if heads attempt to poach the best teachers. Morale in school staffrooms is a fragile flower. This freedom could make it even more so.

Changing the length of the day and school year

Think of the conflicting interests of teachers and of parents with children in other schools, plus the costs of renegotiating bus contracts.

These freedoms are either not worth having or are a poisoned chalice. They are not a sufficient inducement. But money might be.

Academies get an extra grant to compensate them for losing LA services. Astute heads have worked through the possible extra costs and are confident of a substantial net gain (though the DfE says that “the government is clear that schools converting to academies should not have a financial advantage or disadvantage”).

Most of the extra funding comes from the Young People’s Learning Agency (YPLA). But part will be recouped from the local authority, from that share of the Dedicated Schools Grant (DSG) which schools forums have collectively agreed should be retained centrally for more effective provision of services needed by a minority of pupils with acute and possibly unpredicted needs – physical, behavioural, social, emotional.

The deal that is being offered is unsustainable. The extra money that is not being recouped directly from the LA’s DSG will in future be taken from the general grant to the LA , irrespective of the number of academies in each LA. This adds another layer of unfairness. Preferential treatment for academies comes at the expense of care for the elderly, road safety measures and children’s social services.

The academy policy will be divisive within and between schools, inequitable in rewarding the most advantaged and harming those who need help most and costly. Is it worth it? Mr Gove has set our school system on a path to fragmentation and uncertainty and the most vulnerable will be at greatest risk.

  • Peter Downes is a former ASCL president, retired head, Liberal Democrat councillor in Cambridgeshire and education consultant.

Feedom and choice