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'Coasting' academies - it's a funny old game

Phil Reynolds looks at the impact of the Education and Adoption Bill on academies

Posted by Stephanie Broad | May 10, 2016 | Law, finance, HR

It feels like a lifetime ago since the government announced their intention for a new Education and Adoption Bill to include a rule that ‘coasting’ schools will be forced to become academies. Since then, a definition for ‘coasting’ has been released and now government have expanded the bill to include ‘coasting’ academies along with ‘coasting’ free schools to transfer between academy trusts. The proposed bill has now reached the final stage and all is needed is for the bill to receive Royal Assent.

What will be the potential impact?

The government has been very clear in their vision to ensure that school performance is not ‘coasting’ and their target to make every school in the UK an academy. But this new amendment to the bill to include academies and free schools could be very significant. This essentially means that we could see schools which are ‘coasting’ being transferred between academy trusts, much the way Premiership footballers are!

The impact of this type of movement could be huge to the education sector and those within it. There are many questions to ask here. For a start, who will fund the cost of transferring schools between trusts? Legal fees will be the most common cost burden for those trusts involved in the transfer of a school and their employees. Then you have the unknown financial costs – for example, the school’s buildings could be in desperate need of repair and any new trust taking on the school will possibly be liable for the cost of this. Any trust receiving a ‘coasting’ school will inherit a LGPS deficit as well and therefore could see additional contribution rates being paid out to help reduce the liability.

Due diligence will be even more crucial than it ever was before and any trust taking on a new school should undertake this process and fully understand the issues in place. Although, it is not clear at present if the government will allow an academy trust to say ‘no’ to a ‘coasting’ school/academy. It might be that the trust does not have the capacity or facilities to introduce one more school to their family. The academy trust could feel so strongly against introducing a ‘coasting’ school/academy that the Accounting Officer/CEO may even resign in protest. That in-turn could lead to changes in culture and ethos for the whole existing Trust itself – much like when football teams change manager every six to 12 months. However, some Accounting Officers/CEOs may relish the opportunity and challenge to drive standards up within a ‘coasting’ school/academy having already achieved the very same in their own trust.

What about the non-financial impact? Each trust is likely to have different ethos and a school which is moving between trusts is likely to take some time to change and adapt to the latest one. Is three years really enough time to measure the impact the trust is having to ensure the school isn’t ‘coasting’? Having a period of stability is often seen as the best way to improve performance and therefore too much change may result in a school never achieving anything more than ‘coasting’.

Don’t forget the staff. The terms and conditions they receive from one employer might be completely different to the next. You also may find that certain values and skills that new academy trusts find crucial are not apparent in their new employees. This may result in employees leaving the school at a time when the recruitment of staff in education, most notably teachers, is becoming increasingly difficult. However, on academy trusts should be open to new values and skills which could be introduced to their trust and be of great benefit.

Another issue to consider is governance. Perhaps the new trust’s ideas and strategic vision will not agree with those on the governing body of the school? This may lead to governors resigning and once again, we know how difficult it can be to replace them.

What if, even after numerous ‘transfers’, the academy trust can’t turn around the fortunes of the ‘coasting’ school? What if ‘good’ is enough for that school? Does that mean the Accounting Officer should be removed for failing to improve standards? Will we see Accounting Officers become much like managers of football teams and moving between trusts?

Collaboration should be seen as a good way of helping to ensure standards in ‘coasting’ schools improve. Existing MATs that are deemed to be ‘outstanding’ and have proven they can drive standards up should be assisting those who might be struggling to share ideas and methods. This is may prove to be a more effective method rather than transferring schools between Trusts every three years.

Are we set for a decline in standards?

The decision to introduce ‘coasting’ academies and free schools to the bill could have the biggest impact of all to the education sector. The level of change and unpredictability could be unprecedented.

It may, as the government believe it will, have nothing but a positive impact on the sector resulting in our education standards and results improving. However, if the impact is a negative one we could see the UK’s education sector decline (some may say even further) – much like the standards we have seen from Premiership teams in recent times!

Phil Reynolds is a specialist in academies at accountancy firm Kreston Reeves and also a school governor.

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