Thursday, 26 May 2011

Academies: an update

See also Academies: Selling our children's future.

Academies are funded directly by the government and operate outside of local authority control. The government describes them as independent state-funded schools. Essentially, academies have more freedom than other state schools over their finances, the curriculum, and teachers' pay and conditions.

In Ludgvan, just outside Penzance in Cornwall, the local primary school are looking to become an academy. Last night there was a consultation meeting with parents, also attended by the governors and some teachers. Around 30 parents were present at the meeting along with the governors and the headteacher Helen McFarlane. The school apear to be portraying this as nothing but a wonderful opportunity for the school to manage its affairs independent of local authority control. The headteacher cited the example of a pupil that required a translator, which took a while for the local authority to organise. She claimed that if the school had been an academy it could have arranged it straight away. However there is no way of independently verifying this. The problem may have been finding an appropriate person, for example.

Parents were told that the school would be run as a business and would have to set up as a ‘limited company’. The funding which is coming from the government is secure for this year, but the funding formula is being changed next year. How will this affect the school's funds?

Governors were asked what would happen if the school got into financial difficulty or, like so many businesses over the past 3 years, it went into administration. Parents were told that is was their belief that the government would want to bail the school out as they are promoting academies and want them to work. However, this is no guarantee that money would be there to help the school. Because the school has done so well with its budgets up to now is no guarantee that it will succeed under these new circumstances with new financial responsibilities it did not have before. The Government wants to create a market in education and therefore it is unlikely it will bail out “failing” schools.

Several parents voiced concerns over private companies coming in to fund the school. Questions are: what would these companies want in return for funding the school and what would happen if they went bankrupt? At a time of global financial crisis where so many companies have struggled, bringing the market into the education system opens us up to massive risks, especially as a small school. Any business needs to plan in case of financial difficulties and governors are offering little reassurance that the funds will be there. If government funds prove to be insufficient, the school could be pushed into bringing in private companies to fund it, whether they like it or not.

There is also the risk of unforeseen events, such as fire or floods. Parents were told in such an event the academy school’s insurance would cover the cost. However, insurance companies are not quick to pay up or get a job done. Parents are still waiting for insurance to cover the fire damage to equipment in Penlee Park in Penzance after two months. Under the local authority, pupils would be found alternative accommodation immediately and would not lose teaching time. That would not happen as an academy.

Parents were told last night that the consultation period lasts until 17 June. They were told that it would not be advisable for the governors to go ahead if there was significant opposition from parents. Therefore, there is a chance for parents to research this and put their views to the governors who will make the final decision at the end of June. This is a very big issue that carries great risks. Parents, teachers and governors have a duty to make sure it is the right decision for the school and the children. Parents can email comments to: comments@ludgvan.cornwall.sch.uk

However, the divisional secretary of Cornwall And Isles of Scilly NUT (teaching union) has stated that Ludgvan's application is quite far advanced, suggesting that this has been planned for some time. The letter telling parents about the meeting suggests it is just an idea they are considering. Some parents are concerned that the decision has effectively already been made and the consultation is simply cosmetic. Parents need to ask searching questions and make sure that every eventuality has been thought about and planned for. They need concrete guarantees about funding.

See also Academies: part three.

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