Is your school ready for academy conversion?

 

Academy conversion can be an incredibly complex process – one that requires a great deal of thought before you venture into it. Deciding whether or not your school or college is ready to convert can take time, and can also involve many discussions with your governing body and stakeholders.

The academy conversion model (initially common in schools in special measures, known as “sponsor” academies) is now chosen by many good/outstanding schools (known as “convertor” academies) as it turns a school into an independent business (not for profit) that receives funding directly from central government instead of a local authority.

An academy has more control over its operations and affairs such as setting its pupil admissions policy, recruitment and salary policies, and has increased opportunity to innovate.  There are currently more than 5,200 academies in England, and whilst many have seen significant improvements from the freedoms allowed within the academy model, many still resist converting because they don’t understand or see the value of it.

Why do you want to convert?

First of all, you must decide what the reason(s) are for converting. Do you want the freedom to decide your own curriculum? Do you want the choice of when your terms begin and end? Or do you want to receive support from being part of a multi-academy trust (MAT)?

Whatever motivation you have, your reasoning for moving forward needs to be clear. You will be required to obtain consent from your governing body and consult with stakeholders before applying for an academy order, and to do so you will need to have a strong argument for why your school should convert into an academy.

Finance

Control of financial matters is a strong advantage for many who choose to convert, as academy status allows a school to invest funds in its own priorities.

Extra revenue received via the ESG (Education Services Grant) can be spent on much-needed resources, which a local authority school would not have previously been able to afford.

Independent curriculum and structure

Having the freedom to decide term times, teaching structure and curriculum are key drivers for those schools considering academy conversion, as many in the education sector feel controlled by central and local government decisions.

Converting to academy status gives schools the chance to step away from their local authorities and have more input into how they believe their schools should operate.

Admissions

The admissions process often presents issues for many schools and whilst converting to an academy does allow more freedom, many believe it could be detrimental. Some in the education sphere, particularly unions, believe this will allow schools to manipulate their pupil admissions and reduce costs by lowering staff salaries or even limiting their pupil intake.

However, many schools that have converted have improved their admissions policies and feel more stable as a result. They have been able to widen their catchment areas, provide bonuses where possible, and increase the number of teaching staff available.

Relationship with your local authority

Because academies are not maintained by local authorities, deviating away from the local authority post-conversion can often mean a strained and terse relationship, but some academies have found that they work better with their local authorities post-conversion. Academy Principal Stephen Munday spoke out in an interview with SecEd, and has remarked: “It’s a more grown-up, mature relationship between two types of system leader.”

The first steps of the conversion process

The conversion model has a step-by-step guide that can allow you to safely navigate the process, but it is by no means definitive. There will be various steps that require further action, but the initial actions are as follows:

1) Obtain consent

Before a school can convert there must be consent given by the governing body to become an academy. This involves gathering letters of resolution and approval for the process to begin – and it’s important to keep all documentation, as evidence will be needed by the DfE at a later stage.

Also, if a school is religious, then consent must be received from the relevant religious body (e.g. the diocese).

2) Register your interest

Once the decision has been made to convert to an academy, register your interest with the DfE via its website. This allows your school to be assigned a project lead who can oversee the process and provide support and advice where needed.

3) Seek legal advice

Seeking advice from a solicitor for any business decision is expected, and the academisation journey is no different.

Whilst you can’t commence any formal procedures at this point, a legal advisor can inform you of the potential impact on employment, property, financial and commercial law matters. Once the process begins there is a strict timeline set by the DfE, and a solicitor can ensure this is met and help the process of converting to run smoothly.

Again, there is no strict path to converting into an academy, and your route will vary depending on the nature and structure of your school.

Post-conversion, your legal adviser will be able to talk to you about what other services they can offer to your school. 

What is right for your school, your staff and your students?

It is important to do what is right for your school and by converting into a business you still need to deliver quality education and see students perform to the best of their abilities. There has been much conversation in the news discussing whether converting to an academy will affect studies and the results that pupils get, and you must decide whether this route will suit your school.

Academy conversion is not a quick decision, or one that should be taken lightly; seeking the best expertise will allow you to make an informed decision.

Whether you choose to discuss with schools that have already converted and can share their pitfalls and learnings from the process, or whether you seek expertise from a law firm, the more information you can obtain, the better position you will be in to make the right decision for your school and your students.

Niamh Spence is a guest contributor from berg, a law firm that works closely with the education sector and assists schools looking to convert to academies. They have recently created an Academy Conversion checklist and handbook to guide you through the process.

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