By Donna Richardson

Government plans to forcefully convert all schools to academies by 2020 — or gaining a commitment to converting by 2022 — have been met with such fierce opposition from teachers across the country that they have now been forced to soften the pace. Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne first announced in the Budget that schools in England will need to convert to academies and any schools that fall short of these requirements will be forced to do so by the government using radical new powers, thus ending the link between local authorities and schools established in 1902.

Education Minister Nicky Morgan, who at first supported the plans, has now backed down and is engaging in a new approach in the face of a wall of opposition from unions, teachers and parents.

Currently, all schools can choose to become academies, but those judged to be struggling or failing to improve are forced to convert to academy status. Under the proposed plans, all types of schools – unsuccessful or otherwise — would have had to make the switch, while Morgan’s newest stance rests on encouraging academy conversion.

Rise of the Academies

The academies policy was introduced by Labour to improve struggling schools, primarily in deprived areas. However, it only saw unprecedented growth and acceleration during the coalition years. Numbering just 203 in May 2010, of 3,381 secondary schools some 2,075 are now academies. Furthermore, 2,440 of 16,766 primary schools have attained academy status.

Academies in England are funded directly by the Department for Education (DfE) and operate independently of the local authority.

Like traditional schools, academies are subject to inspection by Ofsted, with those classed outstanding exempt from routine inspection. Regional School Commissioners introduced in 2014 to approve academy conversions are tasked with monitoring standards at academies and free schools in their areas. Eight regional commissioners each work with a small board of head teachers and act on behalf of the Secretary of State for Education.

Academies do not have to follow the National Curriculum, so long as they offer a broad and balanced subject range. Generally, the day-to-day operations for the school are managed by a head teacher or principal and are overseen by individual charitable bodies called academy trusts. These may also be part of an academy chain and provide advice, support, expertise and a strategic overview. They control their own admissions process and have more freedom to innovate.

Academies can also play a role in promoting industry and vocational skills. Indeed, there are some excellent examples of giants of industry sponsoring state schools and specialist colleges, such as the JCB Academy in Derbyshire.

A Case Study – JCB Academy

The JCB Academy based in Rochester, Staffordshire, has been directly affected by the reforms since its main offering is the Diploma of Engineering as a specialist school of engineering excellence, and the country’s first University Technical College (UTC).

The JCB Academy was set up in 2010 with a range of partners including JCB, Rolls-Royce, Network Rail and Toyota. They wanted to provide a range of technical qualifications for 14 – 19 year olds wishing to pursue a career in engineering and business. Its curriculum is based on a series of engineering challenges set by the business partners.

Every student in Year 11 takes Maths, English, Physics, Chemistry, Biology, ICT, Business, D&T and German at GCSE together with the Engineering Diploma, which in itself accounts for 40 per cent of the curriculum time. Students at the Academy have shorter holidays and a longer working day more closely aligned to the world of work. This gives the time necessary to teach the Diploma and the range of compulsory extracurricular activities.

Students entering Year 12 take an Engineering or Business route, with the engineers currently studying the Advanced Engineering Diploma which is equivalent to 2.5 A Levels. A further 25 UTCs are planned across the country by Lord Baker under the Baker Dearing Educational Trust.

“No one can say that the Engineering Diploma was an easy way to get a string of GCSEs,” says David Bell, who is also the Chief Corporate Development Officer for JCB. “Engineering just does not lend itself to a typical GCSE which consists of two years of study and a two- hour final exam. It is about problem solving, and learning through making mistakes and continually improving your solution.

“Our results demonstrate that we have engaged our pupils. Most successful people are well-rounded – both academic and practical. We represent that balance”, said Mr Bell.

Mirroring a working day, school hours are from 8.30am until 5pm. The academic year is made up of five terms with each term having a different engineering or business challenge. “By integrating the GCSE subjects around an engineering challenge our goal is that students will never ask ‘why am I having to learn this?’ They have to learn their maths, sciences, ICT, business and English in order to solve and present their engineering solutions for the problem. They are fully engaged and the challenges take them into the real world with visits organised by our partners, including The London Eye for the hydraulics challenge, and the Rolls-Royce pump supplier for their design and build challenge. Every challenge includes a real life application,” he added.

One year 13 student who recently completed an Engineering Diploma, said: “One of the main things that I have learned from this course is how engineers tackle problems and how they are solved. An engineer believes that there is always a need for improvement in a product. I have found the course different from other traditional courses in that we are able to work with major companies. They have given us real life problems to solve. I feel from this that I have had a great insight into what engineering actually is.”

The Case For and Against Academies

The government argues that academies achieve higher standards by empowering head teachers with greater powers to control pay, length of the school day and even term times. Coupled with the freedom to innovate outside of the national curriculum, academies have also been shown to improve twice as fast as other state schools.

Yet MPs’ committees have criticised the academies programme for a lack of oversight, particularly stating finances and public accountability.

Teaching unions believe that “academisation” is a stealth way of privatising the school system, while the government argues it introduces innovation. They say that it is becoming clear is private providers that run large “chains” of schools have grown so much they have reached a point where they cannot cope. Therefore, the largest chains have been prevented from taking on any more schools. Ofsted chief Sir Michael Wilshaw criticised seven academy chains for failing to improve the results of pupils in their schools, while paying board members large salaries.

So What Next?

Taking into account the wide opposition to plans to change all schools to academies – not only from parents, teachers and unions but from Nicky Morgan’s own party — the Education Minister may have to reconsider their plans. Unions say that they are standing ready to engage in further talks to encourage co-operation with the education sector in a constructive way.