Confessions of an Academy Converter

Earlier this week there was a lot of internet traffic about a Chair of Governors who resigned because he does not support the conversion to Academy status.

I mentioned this story on Twitter, and pointed my followers to the original story.  A Headteacher contacted me via Twitter, and sent me their story.  They’ve agreed that I can publish it, but asked to remain anonymous.

The original story seems to have sparked some healthy debate – do read it!

To: Elaine

From: “Anonymous”

Subject: Confessions of a Convertor

“I read Nigel Gann’s explanation for his resignation as Chair of Governors with significant interest (12th April 2011).

However, as several others have suggested through their comments, there is a counter-argument, or at the very least an alternative perspective.

Where I will agree with Nigel is that governors, as the custodians of the school’s strategic position and long term future, need to ask themselves and senior leaders at the school searching questions about any significant change in administration.  Here I use my words carefully.  Conversion to academy status is a change in administration.  It is not, or need not be, a root-and-branch upheaval of all that is good about the school, its vision, values and core purpose.

As a Headteacher of an ‘outstanding’ school invited to convert, I had to assist governors in making their decision, and as you would expect therefore had to establish my own personal position.  My views are simple, and I like to think of them as pragmatic.  Others may choose to describe them as cynical, but I would wager that they have the luxury of being able to view ‘the system’ from afar (as the regional union representatives who described me as “selfish” were able to do), or to effectively walk away from the issue (as Nigel Gann has done).  I had no such luxury.

My thoughts dwelt on what change was inevitable, what was within our control and what was beyond, and how we find our way through a time of turbulence.  The erosion of local authority support and services is inevitable.  Leading a school in a poorly-funded ‘shire’ authority, we had never been blessed with riches from central government, but the intentions of this government to constrain non-front line services further made this a stark reality.  My neighbours and I receive almost daily letters informing us of price hikes or service cuts.  My nightmare scenario was to be tethered to a local authority that was withered through spending cuts and the desertion of other schools, without the autonomy or funding to react to this new environment.  It was also inevitable that other local schools would convert.  As soon as a scheme incentivises participation, school leaders will take a pragmatic view to secure their share.  Specialist school status was a classic case in point:  those who rejected the strategy for philosophical reasons (the end of the comprehensive, selection through the back door etc.) not only saw a new system emerge around them, but they disadvantaged a generation of their school’s children and community partners through their dogma.

The weakening of local authority infrastructure and other schools’ decisions are beyond my school’s control.  However, we could be a ‘signpost rather than a weathervane’ and take control of our own decision-making, forge a new relationship with the local authority (based on a supplier-client model), and try to sustain our forward momentum.  Our conversion was never badged as new buildings or new facilities.  It was the raw reality of not jettisoning ‘minority’ courses such as Music and Psychology from our curriculum, not making good staff redundant, not withdrawing support for partner primary schools and not trying to muddle through with IT systems that were long past the point of obsolescence.

Why the rush?  Because with each month we delayed, we paid the opportunity cost of funding that could have been made available for us to spend to shore us up.

Governors knew and appreciated this.  They also appreciate that having the power to change (curriculum, school day etc.) does not compel one to change.  Our school name, intake, catchment area, curriculum have remained unchanged.  Yes, I have a whole new layer of bureaucracy to deal with and more localised accountability (our trustees are made up exclusively from our governors). I receive no extra ‘perks’ personally but a whole stack of work and criticism from those who can snipe and philosophise about ‘the system’.  But, and here the clichés will come thick and fast, that is the hand we’ve been dealt: caught between a rock and a hard place.

Do I regret the savagery of the spending cuts?  Of course.  Casino-style banking and an attitude of below-cost selling in the public sector for too long have led us to the point where the future of the nation’s children hangs in the balance.  I can’t change any of that.  I have to try and find the best way through for those I’m privileged to care for.  As those schools around falter or follow suit in their own conversions, I don’t regret our decision at all.  I regret having to make it.  Here my cynicism provides real comfort.  Nothing is permanent.  Some schools have morphed themselves from Grant Maintained, through Foundation status, maybe via Trust status to academy.  There will be more changes to come.  Those schools that changed did two things:  held on to their vision, and made hay while the sun shone.  All credit to them.  I hope we can do the same.”

More on Academies from the Modern Governor blog

About Elaine Walton

I look after Modern Governor for Learning Pool. I work with our local authority customers, to find the best way to roll-out the programme to their schools and I help their school governors to get the most out of e-learning.
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2 Responses to Confessions of an Academy Converter

  1. I have a lot of sympathy for most of the views expressed in the article above, but there’s a bit of cyclical logic about who jumps first that I find distasteful. Yes, the headteacher has a responsibility to do the best for the pupils in her school, but does she not also have the same responsibility for all other pupils in the area?
    If you’re going to convert to academy status be strong and say “I think all schools should convert, because it will serve the interests of all children better,” rather than “If I didn’t do it someone else might and I’d rather their kids got left behind than mine.”
    It seems what is being said is:
    1. The strength of the LA is based on the number of schools that are part of it, so if schools leave it will become weaker.
    2. School leaves because of the possibility the LA might become weaker if other schools leave.
    3. The LA becomes weaker, so those left are worse off (or they could just leave and weaken it further).
    Apply this same logic to any walk of life where the strength of the collective is based on individual membership (insurance, an army, a football team) and you will be described as ‘cynical’ (at best).

  2. Graham Whiting says:

    Isn’t the headteacher lucky that their school is outstanding and they have the opportunity to convert. I am a governor and trustee of a school that will not have the opportunity to convert until we can can find a partner to convert with. In the meantime, we face all the issues mentioned and more. Jumping ship is not an option to me, it is just the easy way out. However if the current situation continues I am sure there are many who will take the easy way out.

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