FEATURE: Is it right to make High Peak schools change into academies?

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In the budget Chancellor George Osborne announced that all schools must become academies by 2020 - or have official plans to do so by 2022.

He pledged to “set schools free” from local bureaucracy and as academies are independent, state-funded schools, they receive their funding directly from central government, rather than through a local authority.

STOCK - Chapel High School's new head Simon Grieves

STOCK - Chapel High School's new head Simon Grieves

The day-to-day running of the school is with the head teacher or principal, but they are overseen by individual charitable bodies called academy trusts and may be part of an academy chain.

Caitlin Bisknell is the deputy cabinet member for Derbyshire County Council’s children’s services and serves the Buxton North and East division.

She said: “This is a bad day for schools, a bad day for students and a bad day for teachers and parents.”

Academy status, introduced by a Labour government, was originally reserved for schools in urgent need of improvement, but since 2010 schools have been encouraged to convert and have been given extra funding for doing so.”

Jennifer Rackstraw, left and Louise Moore who co-head the Buxworth Primary School.

Jennifer Rackstraw, left and Louise Moore who co-head the Buxworth Primary School.

The principal advantages to school leaders of academy status, it is claimed, are that they are exempt from the national curriculum and the national pay regulations for teachers.

Simon Grieves, headteacher at Chapel-en-le-Frith High School which was recently rated as ‘Outstanding’ by Ofsted, said: “The announcement on academies isn’t a surprise to us. Many schools including ours have been looking at their options in anticipation of such an announcement.

“Nationally of course, a majority of secondary schools are already academies, but the change will be a bigger shock here in Derbyshire where academies are less common.”

The proceeds of a sugar tax (see page 6) on fizzy drinks will boost sport in primary schools, while secondaries will get funds for after-school activities.

Labour's Parliamentary Candidate for the High Peak Caitlin Bisknell

Labour's Parliamentary Candidate for the High Peak Caitlin Bisknell

Mr Grieves said: “We will need to see the detail on the announcement of additional funding for a longer school day. We already run lots of after-school activities and any additional funding for them would be very welcome.”

Any schools which fail to become academies by 2020 would be forced to do so under radical new powers to be adopted by the government.

One of the joint headteachers at Buxworth Primary School, Jennifer Rackstraw, said: “Teaching at a small primary school, we have always enjoyed the security of the Local Education Authority (LEA) who do provide high quality guidance.

“To leave the LEA and become an academy would be a huge challenge however. We are part of Peak Edge Group of Schools, PEGS, which is a 12-school cluster around New Mills High School and we work together to share best practice experiences and training so we wouldn’t be completely our own.

“Coming from a small school, this help is invaluable as there are other teachers with different viewpoints who can offer opinions and guidance so we would be well placed to cope if the changes come into force.”

Former education secretary Michael Gove, who launched the Conservative’s education plans, originally considered making all schools academies, but pulled back because of the challenges it would pose.

Concerns have already been raised about whether there would be enough good sponsors to take on schools.

Ms Bisknell said: “In Derbyshire only two per cent of our primary schools are academies, but 82 per cent are good or outstanding, so I fail to see how this ideological change from schools to academies would make much difference.”

For the 45 secondary schools county-wide, she said one-third are academies, but there are none in the High Peak.

She said: “People think that being an academy will take away the budget control from the local authority, but the money is already controlled by individual schools.”

She feels the government’s plans are too ambitious as it took six years to turn 22 per cent of schools into academies, and now the aim is to transform the remaining 78 per cent in four years.

“This is more ridiculous than rearranging the deck chairs on the sinking Titanic,” she added. “It will make teachers less focused on educating youngsters, which is wrong.”

Following the budget announcement, a petition has been launched calling for a referendum to be held on changing the education system, and within a week it has gained more than 114,000 signatures.

When a petition receives more than 100,000 signatures, Parliament will consider this for a debate.

Speaking about the reform, a spokesman for Ofsted added: “Ofsted’s focus is solely on reporting what we find through our inspections – regardless of school structure. Inspectors want to see schools which have strong leadership and management, good quality teaching, and high aspirations for their pupils.”