When the chancellor announced in the most recent Budget that all schools will become, or be in the process of becoming, academies by 2020, he fired the starting pistol on the most wide-ranging change to state education in a generation.
The dramatic surge in academisation under the Coalition Government has already wrought huge changes to the education sector. Over 4,700 schools have now left local authority control and converted to academy status, up from approximately 200 in 2010.
However, the latest announcement means that local authority control for every English school will now be phased out, and eventually completely transferred to head teachers overseen by academy trusts and Regional Schools Commissioners. Given the sheer number of schools being converted, and in such a small timeframe, it goes without saying that such upheaval does not come without risk.
Labour’s shadow education secretary, Lucy Powell, has already suggested that there is a funding ‘blackhole’ in the Government’s cost predictions for the academisation policy. Given that Central Government is already well stretched after six years of funding cuts, the additional funding needed to finance the plans – especially if the cost even comes close to Labour’s predictions – will only put it under further strain.
Alongside this the Regional Schools Commissioners are already under significant pressure, with their remit having grown substantially since the posts were formally created in September 2014. In July 2015, their role was expanded to include responsibility for approving the conversion of underperforming maintained schools into academies and deciding on their sponsors. Just this year, their role was expanded further, with the Education Act 2016 making them the judges of the quality of a coasting school’s improvement plans too.
Blurred lines of accountability
As control of the schools is gradually transferred from local authorities to academy heads, there is a danger that lines of responsibility could become blurred - especially with the rate of academy conversion set to balloon in the coming years. It is therefore vital that central government, local authorities and Regional School’s Commissioners work together to ensure that the lines of accountability are made clear throughout the process.
Heads must upskill
Given that managing the size and complexity of some academies is equivalent to that of managing a major business, there is also a new role for academy heads to adopt particular behaviours that may not come naturally to them.
In particular the new responsibility for managing academy finances will mean that heads, especially those who have little or no prior experience of such tasks, will need to quickly learn how to manage and balance their budgets. It is crucial that heads of new academies have the proper skills and risk management processes in place to manage their institution effectively, whilst at the same time delivering the high educational standards the Government will expect.
Given the sheer size and complexity of the transition towards full academisation, it will undoubtedly cause significant upheaval. It is therefore crucial for all parties involved to collaborate to ensure that the potential risks inherent within such a radical shake-up are managed effectively, and that processes are in place to make the transition as smooth as possible.
Tilden Watson is head of education at Zurich Municipal