Academies

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Position statement
23 May 2013
The Labour government introduced the first academy schools in 2002. The Conservative-led coalition government moved quickly after the election in 2010 to offer academy status to all schools, often with financial incentives, and introduced the free schools programme; legally, a free school is a kind of academy.

The government's intention is that all schools will become academies (including free schools, studio schools and university technical colleges), and that the state education system will be replaced by a collection of independently managed, privately sponsored and state-funded individual schools.

At the end of 2012 about half of secondary schools were academies. However, the status is profoundly unattractive to the large majority of primary and special schools, so overall just 10% of schools in England were academies.

ATL has long opposed the academy programme as we believe it fragments provision, reduces accountability and, according to a November 2012 report from the National Audit Office, between 2010 and 2012 incurred £1 billion additional expenditure, which should have been allocated to all schools. ATL also opposes forced conversion.

Our members in academies

As the number of academies increases, more and more ATL members are working in academies. ATL fully supports our members in academies. Academy members do the same job as staff in maintained schools; they are equally dedicated to improving the quality of teaching and learning; and deserve equal conditions of employment and terms of service.

ATL is recognised by a number of national academy chains and negotiates centrally for teachers employed in these academies. In individual academies, school representatives - supported by branch and London office officials - negotiate directly with the academy, usually through joint consultative committees. ATL's aim is, at least, to match the provisions offered to staff in the maintained sector.

Pay and conditions

Since their inception academies have had the freedom to set their own pay but, to date, few have done so. Teachers transferred at the conversion of a maintained school to an academy retain their right to be paid on the national pay scales, and most academies have rightly resisted the complication of imposing new contracts by placing new staff onto different scales. ATL believes that all academies should be required to pay all teachers in accordance with the national pay scales.

As academies are in the large part stand-alone institutions, staff moving from one academy to another have no continuity of service for salary progression, sick leave or maternity benefits.

National salary scales and conditions of service have been vital in ensuring that teachers are able to move freely between schools to gain experience and share best practice. ATL believes that service in all state-funded schools, including academies, should be treated as continuous.

Working conditions have changed in some academies, with longer working days, weekend working, summer schools and homework clubs. Non-teaching duties should not be forced onto teachers and, where teachers agree to additional duties or extended hours, they should receive suitable recompense for this. ATL believes that non-teaching roles should be undertaken by support staff. Teachers in academies should be focused on improving outcomes for their pupils.

Curriculum and pupil performance

Many claims are made by both supporters and detractors as to the exam performance of academies but neither side's claims are upheld by the Academies Commission (an inquiry set up by the RSA and the Pearson Think Tank to examine the implications of the academisation of schools). Since the large majority of them are still new institutions there can be no evidence yet of an 'academy effect'. The only explanation offered for the existence of such an effect is a higher quality of governance, but the majority of academies are convertors with largely unchanged governing bodies.

The government claims that academies are successful because they have more freedoms than other schools but no maintained school is constrained from innovation in pedagogy by regulation. The curriculum as taught is determined largely by external tests, 'league table behaviour' and the perceived demands of Ofsted, and much less by the national curriculum from which academies are free. Forward-looking schools innovate in curriculum regardless of their status.

Academies are free to employ 'teachers' without regard to their qualifications. This provision is damaging in a number of ways and contradicts the government's assertions that good quality teaching is the crucial element in pupil performance. School improvement requires sharing good practice between schools but stand-alone academies, especially individualist free schools, are less likely to form collaborative links, thus limiting performance improvement among unqualified teachers.

Governance and accountability

ATL is concerned that the number of academies has made the role of the Department for Education (DfE) in overseeing them impossible. Stand-alone academies are accountable only to the DfE, and only by way of a contract between them. This fragmentation releases academies from any responsibility for the planning of school places in an area, ensuring fair access or accountability to the community. These concerns are shared by the Academies Commission.

Many academies, particularly free schools, are governed by faith groups. ATL believes that the aim of all schools should be to educate pupils as responsible and compassionate global citizens with the skills and knowledge to question and understand the world around them, and to respect the beliefs, cultures and opinions of others. In faith schools the promotion of a particular faith should be secondary to this aim, but academy sponsors may not share this prioritisation.

There is consensus that there is a need for a structure between academies and the DfE. The government promotes chains for this role, but at the end of 2012 just one per cent of schools in England were members of large chains, and chains present significant problems of governance and accountability. Worse, while few chains are for-profit organisations, they operate like businesses and are open to privatisation, which is the government's long-term intention.

The comptroller and auditor general of the Houses of Parliament raised concerns over the ability of the Young People's Learning Agency (YPLA) to oversee the £6.1 billion granted to academies in 2011-12.

The YPLA has now been replaced by the Education Funding Agency (EFA), and ATL hopes that tight governance of public funds will be exercised by the EFA to ensure value for money for taxpayers and a level playing field with other state-funded schools.

Sponsorship and transparency

ATL is concerned about the process used to accredit sponsors of academies. Despite numerous freedom of information requests from different organisations, the process for determining which academies go ahead and which don't is not transparent. The process is hidden behind the excuse of 'market sensitivity' and applicants not revealed until it is too late for parents and unions to raise any concerns they may have over the ethos of the academy or sponsor.

ATL welcomes the Information Tribunal ruling that the DfE must publish the names, locations and religions of all groups that have applied to run free schools. ATL calls for a more transparent process with full disclosure of all academy proposals and oversight of public expenditure, including details of public money spent in establishing academies, especially free schools. In addition, ATL calls for a 'fit and proper person' test for sponsors and the establishment of a body responsible for financial oversight.

Trade union rights

If a school was a local authority (LA), trust, voluntary- aided, voluntary-controlled or foundation school prior to the conversion to academy or free school status, then trade union recognition was automatically transferred over in accordance with the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations (TUPE). The position of 'new-build' academies, including free schools, is different as TUPE does not apply. ATL believes that all such schools should recognise ATL and the other education unions for bargaining purposes.

All academies should agree procedures for bargaining on issues that otherwise would have been dealt with at LA or national level. To aid this process, the education unions have drawn up a Model Agreement for Academies in England. All academies and free schools are asked to negotiate an agreement based on the model agreement, and to establish a joint consultative and negotiating committee.

Like maintained schools, academies are legally required to release union representatives to carry out their duties. The most cost-effective means to do this is to participate in local arrangements whereby LAs organise a 'pool' to cover the costs of union facility time within their geographical area, and with all schools making the necessary financial contribution.

Conclusion

ATL will continue to combine principled opposition to the academies policy with practical support for members in academies. ATL opposes state-funded schools being run for profit. ATL looks forward to the restoration of local democratic accountability and local collaborative working to all English state-funded schools.

For more about ATL and academies, see ATL's web page for members working in academies.

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Academies statement