Claire Tasker, Headteacher, has recently addressed the topic of High Storrs' academisation through her blog:
On the first day of the half term holiday I received an email from a wonderful student. He was perturbed by the letter sent out just before we broke up outlining a need for High Storrs School to academise. He told me about an online petition against the proposal. It was a thoughtful email, outlining the fears of many that becoming an academy would threaten all that is special about High Storrs School. Moreover, it railed against the ‘big chains’ and referred to evidence that academisation does not necessarily lead to school improvements.
There are many that believe academisation is not the right was forward for schools in England. They were saddened by the moves made in Spring last year to pass a law to force all schools to academise. Then they were heartened by a seeming U-turn a few months later. Alas, whatever we think of academisation, the future seems clear… all schools will ultimately become academies. Twenty three out of the twenty five secondary schools in Sheffield have become academies and over a third of Primary schools are also academies. We have a Regional Schools Commissioner whose role it is to move all schools in our region into Multi Academy Trusts. So the debate is no longer binary (i.e. ‘should we academise or not?’), the debate is ‘how do we do this on our terms and preserve all that is special and unique about High Storrs School?' This is the debate that is currently occupying our governing body (and has been for more than a year now). They are spending hours discussing and exploring the options with a key principle at the heart of all they do – what will preserve the best of our school and enable us to further improve? There are advantages and freedoms to academisation too that can make our school even stronger.
If you have thoughts and feelings about the next steps for High Storrs School do share them! You will soon receive a letter asking for questions that will be answered and addressed on our website. I hope a great many more of our students and community will be part of the debate moving forward.
If you have any questions that you would like to send in please ensure that you quote 'Academisation Consultation' in the subject box and send to firstname.lastname@example.org
What is academisation?
Academisation is the process by which a school is removed from the control of the Local Authority (LA) and becomes an autonomous body. The resulting academy, or academy trust, receives funding directly from the government with no LA “top slice” (a charge levied to fund operational costs). It answers to one of seven government regional schools’ commissioners (RSCs).
What are the different academisation models?
Until recently schools could convert as stand-alone academies. However, we have been told by the RSC’s office that this option is no longer allowed. The government wishes to see schools working together in groups known as Multi-Academy Trusts (MATs). A MAT can consist of a group of secondary or primary schools or a mixture of both. Some MATs also incorporate special schools. The only options now available are to create a new MAT or to join an existing MAT. Recent discussions with the RSC suggest that the option to create a new MAT could disappear soon. The government’s view seems to be that there are now too many small MATs, which results in the RSC having too many contact points, and that small MATs may not be financially viable in the long term.
Is joining / creating a MAT a merger of schools?
No. We are aiming for a structure in which schools retain their identity, ethos and as much independence as possible. The interactions within the MAT would be at a high level, mainly between Senior Leadership teams, but with staff sharing ideas and good practice across the MAT. Students would still attend High Storrs School and staff would have contracts for employment at High Storrs.
Can the school be forced to academise?
Although the government has pulled back from enacting legislation to force all schools to academise, it is still its stated aim that all schools will become academies. There are two criteria, both loosely defined, under which forced academisation will occur:
Where it is clear that the LA can no longer viably support its remaining schools because a critical mass of schools in that area has converted;
Where the LA consistently fails to meet a minimum performance threshold across its schools, demonstrating an inability to bring about meaningful improvement.
It is not known if, or when, either of these would apply but Sheffield is graded 5 by the DfE for performance of its schools (on a 1?6 scale, where 1 is best) and only three secondary schools (High Storrs, King Edwards and Stocksbridge) remain LA-controlled. Remaining LA schools in some areas (e.g. Hull) are now being forced to academise as the LA is deemed not able to adequately support them. A school would be immediately academised if it achieved the lowest of the four grades following an Ofsted inspection.
If the school does not face the immediate prospect of forced academisation, why are you considering academisation now?
The Governing Board believes that academisation is inevitable and so has to choose the optimum point to academise. We believe that the number of options and potential partners will decrease significantly in the short/medium term. By academising now we still have a choice as to which schools we will work with, either by forming a new MAT or by joining an existing small MAT. If we wait, we risk being forced to join a large MAT where we will have little or no say in its structure or policies. This could be very detrimental to the school.
What does academisation allow a school to do?
Academisation gives schools a number of ‘freedoms’ that are not available to LA-controlled schools. These include: not following the National Curriculum (although a broad curriculum must be followed), making changes to the length of the school day and changing school terms, hiring teachers without Qualified Teaching Status, opting out of the LA admissions system (although they must follow the same rules as other state schools), and sponsoring a new or failing school. It should be stated that the majority of schools that have academised do not make use of these powers; limited changes to the curriculum is the power most commonly exercised.
Is there any evidence that academisation results in improved academic performance?
There is mixed evidence. The strongest evidence suggests that there are benefits from schools working closely together but not necessarily within an academy structure. A good source of information is the report by the select committee of Parliament from 2016.
Are there other advantages / disadvantages of academisation?
Being a member of a MAT has a number of potential advantages. These could include greater efficiencies when buying in external services (e.g. IT, HR support), joint staff CPD across the MAT, increased staff career development and retention within the MAT and other economies of scale. A disadvantage is the requirement to fund an additional management layer at the top of the MAT, although this “top slicing” may be less than the amount previously levied by the LA.
What difference will academisation make to my son or daughter’s education?
If we are able to join or create a MAT of our choice that allows the unique character of the school to be maintained, then students will notice no difference on the day that the school converts to an academy. Over time we would hope to utilise the experience of other schools in the MAT to further improve our learning and teaching.
Will academisation result in the introduction of a school uniform?
If the school were forced to join particular academy chains / MATs then introduction of a school uniform could be a requirement. However, the Governing Board would look to create or join a MAT where this decision remains with the Governing Board; in our view, decisions regarding school uniform and academisation should be completely separate. This is another reason why the Governing Board is actively considering academisation now, while we still have a choice as to whether to create a new MAT or join an existing one.
What options are you considering?
We are currently talking with local secondary and primary schools and also with schools from across Sheffield. There are many factors to consider but possibly the most important ones are to identify partner schools with a similar ethos, that have a structure that is not strongly centralised and which permits schools to retain their identity, and that bring complementary expertise that enables inter-school support and development.
Questions/comments submitted by parents/carers over the past few weeks and our responses
Q. Please could you tell me if the SWLP between High Storrs, King Ecgbert and Silverdale will be affected by these new proposals?
Joining a Multi Academy Trust (MAT) with a group of schools would not preclude continued partnership with schools from outside the MAT. There would also be the possibility of new Sixth Form collaborations with schools within the MAT subject to geographical proximity. We are committed to continuing to offer a broad range of post-16 courses working, where appropriate, with a range of partners.
Q. What are your plans to hold a meaningful consultation with the school community (staff, students and parents), to include public meeting(s) in which a full range of options, including remaining a local authority school, can be debated thoroughly?
The initial consultation process will be via stake-holders submitting questions which will be posted on the school’s website along with answers. We will also be offering drop-in sessions where stake-holders can meet with representatives of the Governing Board to express their views and ask questions. Details of these sessions will be announced shortly.
Q. What are your plans to test the view of the school community in a ballot, again, against a full range of options, including remaining a LA school?
We are holding a detailed consultation process with stakeholders but, in common with other schools, we are not holding a ballot. The consultation process is to allow all stake-holders to express their views. These views will be considered by the Governing Board before it makes a final decision.
And/or are the parent governors prepared to resign and compete for membership of the Governing Body in an election in which they stand on a pro-academisation platform, enabling them, and others with a different vision for High Storrs, to test the views of the school community?
It is a choice for individual governors if they wish to resign on the issue of academisation.
Q. I read your letter several times but I cannot see an argument in favour of academisation as a route to improving the High Storrs learning experience? The only reason presented is the rather underwhelming, 'let's jump before we're pushed'. This seems rather odd. So please can you explain exactly why the school can't continue in its current highly successful format?
If the Governing Board was confident that the school could remain LA-maintained for the foreseeable future and that this placed the school at no disadvantage compared to other local schools, then this would be an option that we would seriously consider. However, we believe, and advice we have sought from a number of sources supports this, that academisation of all schools is still likely on a timescale of 5 years. We already know of at least one Local Authority (LA) in which the few remaining LA-maintained schools are now being forced to academise because the LA is no longer able to provide the required support. Our current position as a good school with outstanding elements, in a small but decreasing pool of non-academy secondary schools, still allows us to create a Multi Academy Trust (MAT) where we will retain local freedom on a number of very important issues (e.g. school uniform, curriculum, teachers’ contracts remaining with the local school etc). If we wait we risk being forced at a later date to join a large existing MAT where we would have to accept the ‘rules’ of that MAT. Having decided that now is the optimum point to academise we have sought partners who share similar values and who we can work with to support each school to further improve both the learning and teaching of the students and the career development opportunities of the staff.
I note the following, from a parliamentary statement from the Secretary of State (Hansard, May 2016):
"As we set out in the White Paper, and as I have subsequently argued, the most pressing need for further powers is to boost standards for those schools languishing in the worst performing local authorities and to provide for schools in local authorities likely to become unviable. So, instead of taking a blanket power to convert all schools, we will seek powers in two specific circumstances where it is clear that the case for conversion to academy status is pressing.
In our worst-performing local authorities, we need to take more decisive action so that a new system led by outstanding schools can take their place. Similarly, because of the pace of academisation in some areas, it will become increasingly difficult for local authorities to have the ability to offer schools the necessary support, and there will be a need to ensure that these schools are not dependent on an unviable local authority. We will therefore seek provisions to convert schools in the lowest-performing and unviable local authorities to academy status. This may involve in some circumstances conversion of good and outstanding schools when they have not chosen to do so themselves. But the need for action in those limited circumstances is clear because of the considerable risk to the standard of education that young people in those schools receive, as the local authority is either unable to guarantee their continued success or support further improvement.
We will consult on these arrangements, including the thresholds for performance and unviability. I am making a clear commitment that the definition of and thresholds for underperformance and viability will be the subject of an affirmative resolution in this House".
The current rules under which schools that haven’t received the lowest Ofsted grade can be forced to academise are not fully clear. As stated above, these centre round the ability of an LA to provide the required support and the performance of schools within the LA. Following recent announcements by other local secondary schools, if High Storrs does not academise within the next year it will become the only LA-maintained secondary school in Sheffield. In addition, Sheffield is graded 5 by the DfE for the performance of its schools (on a 1-6 scale, where 1 is best). By both of these measures, the school would appear to be at risk of forced academisation at some point in the future. As stated above, if we academise now we still have the ability to choose and develop an MAT that protects what we feel is most important about the school.
Q. With respect to your recent letter on exploring academisation options I have three concerns:
1. That parents and local residents do not lose a voice in influencing school plans - i.e. that there remains a viable governing mechanism in place accessible to parents and local residents to influence an Academy Trust. My concern is local accountability. The school serves the children of Sheffield and should remain accountable to its people (parents, children, local residents) and not to a body that may have profit motive above all else.
It is our intention to form a MAT where each of the schools retains a strong governing board that maintains a high level of local decision-making. By choosing to academise now we still have the opportunity to achieve this. Waiting runs the risk of reducing the number of options, with the school at risk of being forced into an unsuitable MAT in which the majority of the decision-making is highly centralised. In addition, our preferred option is to join a MAT consisting of other local secondary schools, run by people who understand the city. It will be a local MAT, not a very large national MAT.
2. I am aware of an Academy in London where Academisation led to money being veered away from essential frontline services - namely the hiring of teaching assistant, improvements to school meals - and into activities to aggressively market the school - spin. This piled pressure on already stretched teachers. Furthermore, the teachers' contracts changed wherein their rights to maternity pay and sickness were reduced and performance management became very aggressive. I appreciate your desire to retain High Storrs' distinct ethos and would hope very much that the school does not ditch collegiality in the name of brazen competitiveness, with detrimental consequences for school culture and the experience and wellbeing of its pupils.
We agree fully with these sentiments. We have no intention of worsening staff contracts or reducing money spent on activities directly related to the learning and teaching experience of our students. We would only choose to join a MAT where the other schools shared these sentiments. This has been an important issue in our search for possible MAT partners.
3. I would be very concerned if control over the playing fields and property was displaced to a Trust if this then enabled it to, for instance, secure deals with private companies in return, say, for them being allowed to aggressively push their brands or worse still build homes or otherwise on the school's land - i.e. if a need for short term capital led to the school selling off its assets - assets that may well have been given to the people of Sheffield by philanthropists in the 19th century or early 20th century.
This is an issue we are aware of and we are taking advice to ensure that the school fields are fully protected.
Q. I have a fair few comments about the letter sent home regarding the schools move to an Academy.
I work in the Child & Adolescent Mental Health Trust. Therefore my priority is about child and young people's mental health. I work into schools and many Academies across the city. I have not always had a particular positive experience with these schools although the staff all work very hard however they report lack of resources. What I have found is that existing pastoral care support including access to Learning Mentors, Behaviour Support, etc which the Local Authority once provided is now almost not available unless the Academy buys in these services. Some Academies seem to think that a very strict regime with little flexibility will do for all pupils. Although having an excellent structure and clear school rules helps all children however there are many who struggle. For example, we now see many children and young people with anxiety, low self-esteem, etc and what resources that were there have not been replaced. Some Academies have bought in services, For example, Park Academy has input from Targeted Mental Health and a Clinical Psychologist and Staff have attended child & young people mental health training which I feel is vital. However some Academies have bought in person's whose professional qualifications are unclear and then for example naming them as counsellors which is inappropriate. In my experience some Academies quietly remove 'problem' children because they don't fit into these schools ethos.
It does seem to be the case that some academy chains that take over a failing school achieve short-term academic improvement by removing ‘problem’ children. This is not a policy that High Storrs’ Governing Board would ever condone and we would not seek to join any MAT where we suspected this was a policy, unofficial or official. As an academy we would no longer pay a levy to the LA to cover a number of services but would look to buy in these services at a similar level and quality. Working as part of a MAT may provide opportunities to work with staff already employed at the other schools or may allow the size of the MAT to achieve cost savings.
Q. I have spoken to Year 8/Year 9 pupils in different Academies and it appears that when choosing their GCSE options they have had limited access to their chosen subjects. As the Academy has to budget for things like curriculum then perhaps subjects like music, for example, that might not be in the league tables would be removed from the curriculum or perhaps there isn't enough places. I am not sure. High Storrs is known for it's performing arts and dance, would that remain the same? Bailey-Cox Dance Academy also rents out spaces in the school would they still be able to? My daughter's comments (She is a Year 9 pupil at High Storrs) about moving to an Academy is that she doesn't want the school to lose it's individuality or potentially destroy her schools uniqueness. In terms of uniform, she is in favour except of schools trousers!
We aim to continue to provide as wide a curriculum as possible and don’t see our choice of MAT as having an effect on this (some MATs do dictate the local curriculum but this is not a structure we would wish to enter). We will continue to hire out the school’s facilities; this is an important source of income and we also see one of the school’s roles as supporting activities within the local community. We fully share your daughter’s comments and the driver behind all our considerations is what will best protect the uniqueness and character of the school. The Governing Board periodically discusses the issue of a school uniform. This should remain a local issue for the school and not be imposed by the MAT.
Q. In terms of staffing, would the present school staff remain and what about their pay and conditions. I understand that there is perhaps potentially longer working hours for staff in Academies will that be reflected in their pay. What about staff and pupils autonomy will this be comprised? I understand that Academies can alter the length of the school day. I am in favour of later starts for adolescents. Adolescents need between 8-10 hours sleep per night to be able to function in a working environment otherwise concentration/mood, etc is comprised. Biologically their sleep patterns shift towards later times which often means that they are not getting enough sleep. (National Sleep Foundation provides evidence around this topic) Sleep deprivation in adolescents in particular can be damaging. My daughter backs me up on a later start to the day and a later finish. In addition my daughter has commented that current school lunch times are a difficulty. From what I understand every year group has lunch at the same time. She comments that the queues for lunch are very long and the pupils have to eat quickly as lunch-time is only 45 minutes long. Some schools stagger lunch-times and some school have longer lunch-times. I would also be in favour of making the May half term longer and the six weeks holiday shorter to help families afford a decent and cheaper summer holiday, however that's my preference.
There are a number of points here which should probably be addressed elsewhere. You are correct that academies generally have more freedom in areas around staff contracts, length of the school day etc. The majority of academies do not make use of these additional freedoms. We are still in the early days of the academisation process and haven’t yet considered these issues in any detail. What we can say at this point is that we would only make use of these additional freedoms if we thought they would be of benefit to our students without worsening staff employment conditions.
Q. Would High Storrs be able to choose which Academies they join. What about Primary's that are also not Academies, i.e. Hunter's Bar and Greystones who are feeder schools, can they all join together with High Storrs to make their own MAT? Who is the Chief Executive and what role do they have, what is their experiences of working with schools and their understanding of his pupils and staff. I understand that the running of the school is down to the Head Teacher, how much autonomy will they still have? What about the Governing Body, do they retain ability to make decisions, I am not sure how it works? If in the past the Local Authority took a slice of the schools budget who gets it now?
Although the number of options has decreased significantly in the last 6 months (for example we can no longer form an academy consisting of just High Storrs) we still have a reasonable degree of freedom, although we suspect this will continue to narrow. We have looked at a number of options over the last 9 months, including establishing a new MAT with local primary and secondary schools and the now-preferred option of a cross-city MAT with secondary schools. A local option proved not to be possible, mainly because we could not get agreement with a sufficient number of schools to form a MAT of a size that would be approved by the Regional Schools’ Commissioner. We are hopeful that some of the local primary schools will choose to join our MAT at some point in the future. We are not yet in a position to announce who will be the CEO but expect this to be someone with significant experience of teaching and managing large secondary schools. The MAT will have a scheme of delegation which specifies at what level different decisions are made. We are aiming for a structure where as much decision-making as possible resides with the Head Teacher and local Governing Board. Our selected MAT partners share this desire.
Q. We all tend to be creatures of habit so when change occurs people get anxious, however change can be a good thing so I am optimistic that High Storrs will remain a welcoming and supportive school to both it's pupils and staff. My daughter has been happy at High Storrs and for me as a parent this is priority. A happy and settled child can learn and achieve.
It is heartening to hear that your daughter has been happy at the school. Should we become an academy we hope that on the day of conversion your daughter will notice no difference to the school and her education. Going forward we hope that our choice of MAT partners will allow us to build on our school’s complementary strengths to further improve the education of all students in all the schools.
Q. Thank you for the info provided on the web page and by letter so far. We can appreciate there's now little choice but to convert and join a MAT. Our questions are:
1. Can there be any guarantees that any MAT joined/created will employ trained qualified teachers to teach our children?
Academies have the freedom to employ teachers without QTS (as can LA schools) as unqualified teachers for a period of time but no school (academy or LA-controlled) would compromise on the quality of its teachers.
2. Can there be guarantees that teaching unions will be recognised, consulted about any changes to pay & conditions?
We will continue to recognise the teaching unions and all staff are being consulted as part of our considerations. It is not our intention to make detrimental changes to the pay and conditions of our staff.
3. What will be the accountability arrangements be?, e.g. if we are not happy with either pupil attainment or school management what recourse do we have? What are the governor arrangements?
We will continue to have a strong local governing board with significant decision-making powers. A proportion of the governing board will continue to be elected by parents / carers. The initial steps of any informal or formal complaint will be similar to now: complaints would first be made to the school and if a satisfactory outcome were not reached then complaints would be escalated to the governing board. The MAT would create a higher level at which non-resolved issues could be considered
4. Will the school be financially better off / financially able to manage? Recent press indicates huge problems for schools finance, will this move help?
There is increasing speculation that the education budget, which so far has been reasonably protected, will fall significantly in the next 3-5 years. This will hit both LA and academy schools. An increasingly held view is that groups of 5-10 schools working together in a MAT will be better placed to meet these challenges via economies of scale.
5. Will any MAT be independent of a business that needs to make profit and account to their shareholders? That would greatly worry us; any MAT should be run by the schools for the pupils and staff.
We are proposing to join a MAT formed of local Sheffield schools, not one of the large national chains. The MAT will have charitable status with no shareholders or control by any business.
6. Are changes to staff non contact time or pay scales planned, or have they occurred at schools in any local MAT you are considering?
We are not planning any changes and are not aware of these having happened at any of the schools in our proposed MAT (although only one school is currently an academy). This is something that we will look for as part of the due diligence process.
7. We want to try to understand the implications of how overheads will be met, for example estates/facilities, maintenance, buying materials for schools, as well the HR, training etc that you mention could be jointly shared by a MAT. I would imagine currently the LA meets some of these costs and monitors provision/puts contracts out to tender. I'm sure it's not perfect but who will monitor contracts in a MAT? Is this one the disadvantages you allude to? Presumably a paid role has to be created or you/teachers will end up doing a lot of non-teaching related work? I'm concerned about conflict of interest/potential for poor value and corruption e.g. a business connected to the MAT gets preferential contracts or tenders because it's easier/someone stands to benefit and it may well not be the best for the school or MAT. Essentially, how do we know the school or MATS interests are held, overtime, paramount?
Currently the LA top-slices our income to pay for some central services. However, over the last few years the number of central services has decreased and the school now buys in most services directly. When a school academises this top-slice no longer applies and the school receives all the money directly from the government. The buying-in of services is something that our Business Manager already covers and this would not be pushed onto teachers going forward. Governors publish any business interests on the school website and this will continue should a MAT be formed. Unlike an LA school the MAT, as a charitable body, has to publish annual accounts, which makes its financial activities more transparent. The trust that oversees the MAT would consist of people appointed in consultation with the local governing boards, this trust has ultimate responsibility for the financial conduct of the MAT.
8. You can say you all want the ethos etc preserved, but what actual structures are in place in existing MATS to do this? I'm sure other schools have said the same things.
The MAT will establish a scheme of delegation that sets out which decisions are made centrally and which are made by local governing boards. It essentially establishes the power of the local governing boards and the individual schools. Some MATs are very centralised with local governing boards being more like PTAs. This is not a model we, or our partners in the proposed MAT, favour. What attracts us to the proposed MAT is that all partners are committed to maintaining the ethos of their schools and do not wish to establish a uniform structure across all schools that is tightly controlled from the centre.
9. Is there a chance that the MAT will start to select keep only the most able well behaved children, and expel those who are unable to fit easily into school life? What obligation is there on academies? Both to provide education to all and support those with additional needs, as additional needs are costly. As I understand it an LA has to provide education for its school age population, if any academy expels a pupil, whose responsibility is their education?
As we said above, it does seem to be the case that some academy chains that take over a failing school achieve short-term academic improvement by removing ‘problem’ children. This is not a policy that High Storrs’ Governing Board would ever condone and we would not seek to join any MAT where we suspected this was a policy, unofficial or official. Although a MAT can opt out of the LA admissions’ scheme this is a huge undertaking and not one that we are contemplating. If an academy excludes a student the arrangements are pretty much the same as for an LA school (in most instances the child would attend the age appropriate Inclusion Centre at first and then the LA would work to re-integrate them into a different school).
I look forward to hearing from you and do wish you much luck with what are clearly difficult and stressful decisions.
Thank you for these kind words of support. It is a very difficult and complex process, made more difficult by shifting government policy. The Governing Board has spent many hours and many meetings collecting evidence and discussing options. In all our considerations our driving aim is to protect and continue the high-quality education the school offers to a wide range of students.
Q. I sincerely hope that in ensuring that the special character of High Storrs is maintained, that a uniform is NOT introduced. I think it is part of High Storrs uniqueness and status as a performing arts school that students wear their own clothes.
The MAT we have identified as our preferred option is not one that would insist on MAT-wide uniform policy. This is what we want; we believe that a decision on a uniform is one that should be taken by the governing board of High Storrs School. As in the past, this is an issue that we debate periodically.
The debate is no longer binary (i.e. 'should we academise or not?'), the debate is 'how do we do this on our terms and preserve all that is special and unique about High Storrs School?'Claire Tasker Headteacher