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Special report: Is the rise of academies good or bad for Sussex children?
Governors at Hove Park School have this month made clear their intention to “consider” an academy application.
Threats of city-wide teacher walkouts have followed, along with confusion among many parents.
So what is an academy and why is the much talked about move so controversial with teachers?
Academies first came into existence under Tony Blair’s Labour government in 2000.
They were designed for struggling schools, particularly those in deprived areas, as a way to receive a financial boost.
However the coalition, which came to power in 2010, wants to see more schools of all standards converted to academy status.
Under Michael Gove’s leadership as secretary of state for education, all schools both primary and secondary are now invited to convert.
The theory is that by cutting bureaucracy and putting more power in the hands of head teachers to shape schools, academies will drive up standards.
Councillor Peter Evans, West Sussex County Council’s cabinet member for children, told The Argus this was the case, provided schools had good leadership.
He said: “The reason I support academies is that individual sponsors can give academies a unique flavour of education – be it scientific, technological or whatever.
“As long as they are well governed, have a good sponsor and a good head and teaching staff, then they can make huge strides forward.”
The main difference between academies and standard state schools is the funding arrangement. The latter receive funding directly from their local authority for who they are also accountable.
However, academies get their funding from central government which in turn leads to additional freedoms with regards the curriculum and the hiring and firing of staff.
With the funding coming direct from the Department for Education, academies not only get the standard per pupil funding, but also the additional funds usually held back by the local authority.
A council would usually spend this money on services, such as special needs support to schools across the area.
One of the country’s big academy chains is the Woodard Academies Trust. They run two schools in West Sussex, the Sir Robert Woodard Academy in Lancing and Littlehampton Academy.
David Bilton, the trust’s chief executive, told The Argus the advantages of converting to an academy could be split into two: “financial and educational”.
He said: “From a purely financial point of view there is the extra revenue from central government. This is the money the local authority would hold back.
“From an education point of view, academies don’t have to follow the national curriculum.
“We can tweak what we are giving pupils to meet both their needs and the needs of the community.
“We want to give our pupils a rounded education so they can take their place in society, but we also have one eye on the job market.”
The controlling and changing of the standardised national curriculum is one of the more controversial abilities academy heads posses.
Although they must stick to the core subjects, they can alter what they teach to suit both individual students and the local community.
However critics say the power to change what is taught is dangerous with business minded sponsors tempted to follow their own agenda.
Peter Midwinter, head of Lancing’s Sir Robert Woodard Academy, disagrees.
He told The Argus the ability to shape the curriculum enabled his school to better target individual student needs.
He said: “The national curriculum is by its nature national. However, it is not necessarily the best option for individual students.
“For example not all of our students study a foreign language. That’s because some students need to concentrate and focus on getting their maths and English. Others will fly and can go on to study foreign languages. That flexibility is important.”
The Sir Robert Woodard Academy opened in September 2009 following the closure of the Boundstone Community College.
The mixed gender school serves youngsters in both Lancing and Sompting.
However, the school had a difficult start, having been placed in special measures by Ofsted in January 2012.
Experienced head teacher Peter Midwinter was brought in and the school was out of special measures by October 2013.
Mr Midwinter admitted there were “pros and cons” to being an academy but said the advantages can be great.
Mr Bilton said: “We also have more freedom with regards to term times and the length of the school day. This can be used to our advantage by providing more enrichment activities for our pupils.”
He added: “The advantage in being a chain is that we can work together as a group to achieve best practice.
“We have networking sessions for all different members of staff to share ideas and practices and that has worked really well.”
A number of Sussex schools have enjoyed considerable success since converting to academy status.
The likes of Portslade Aldridge Community Academy made the move in September 2011. It has since been named in the top 10 improved schools in the country due to a 21% increase in students at GCSE gaining five A* to C grades, rising from 39% to 60%.
Nobody was available for comment from the school yesterday.
However, other schools have struggled with the change.
In the last year both Littlehampton Academy and Worthing High School have both been taken into special measures due to poor Ofsted reports.
Sarah Maynard, from West Sussex Academy Watch, warned the change often saw schools “take their eye off the ball”.
She said: “I don’t think it is a good enough reason for a school to say they want to convert because everyone else is.
“You only have to look at the news to see the number of failing academies.
“I think there are a number of aspects to be wary of with academies. I think admissions is a big worry.
“It’s a step towards privatisation, the education system is being turned into the free market. As with the free market there will be winners and losers and there is just no place for that in the education system.
“If these schools can select who they want to take what will happen to those who aren’t necessarily high achievers?”
Another commonly cited criticism of academies is the lack of accountability. While they are still answerable to the Department for Education, they are free from local elected members.
She added: “The Department for Education has to oversee all these schools and they just can’t cope. Before if there was a problem it would go to the local council.
“If something is going wrong at my child’s school and I can’t go to my local authority, who am I going to have to go to?
“Will I have to leave Michael Gove an answer phone message? I want to be able to talk to someone about my child’s future who knows about the area and the school. I don’t want to have to speak to some anonymous person in Whitehall.”
Academies have also been something of a political hot-potato over the last few years.
Although they were originally set up by Labour they have been championed by the Conservatives.
Simon Kirby, Conservative MP for Kemp Town, pointed to the progress of Brighton Aldridge Community Academy and warned of ideology being put before the interests of pupils in the city.
Mike Weatherly, Conservative MP for Hove, added: “If the sole objective is to improve the education of our children, there are few arguments against academies and free schools.
“The idea of course is to pull control of schools away from councils and place it with teachers and parents.
“It is working brilliantly so far and we have two excellent examples in Portslade Academy and the Brighton Bilingual School.”
Meanwhile Caroline Lucas, Green MP for Brighton Pavilion, said: “Hove Park School should be congratulated on all they've achieved in the past few years where the staff and governors have worked hard to achieve some extraordinary successes.
“Given their recent excellent track record, it is disappointing that some believe that Hove Park School would be better off as an academy.
“Academies often leave parents and staff with little say over how they are run and make it harder for the local authority to plan for education needs across the city.”
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