Unsustainable academies?


Editor’s note: The article below first appeared as a comment to John Howlett’s Opinion piece, “Education in Crisis”, we felt, however, that as the author has considerable knowledge of the current operating systems in education, it was worth repeating as an article in its own right.


I am writing to comment on the statement by Tim Hulme, CEO of our local Rye Academy Trust, published on October 12, that: “Trusts of our size are almost unsustainable without wider collaboration.”

They are unsustainable largely because of the extra costs foisted upon them when they became academy trusts, costs that they did not incur when they were managed by the local authority

Take the Rye Community Primary School (RCPS), for example. Before it became an academy, RCPS was in good fettle with significant reserves, its finances being under the close control of the business manager, head teacher and finance committee and under the watchful eye of East Sussex. It was a “good” school in Ofsted terms, although there was a realisation that it needed to do better. The governors were encouraged to get to know pupils and parents.

Then came government pressure to become an academy and therefore a limited company. This was new territory. Statutory accounts would have to be prepared with the associated costs of accountants, auditors and accounting software. Either the Head would become a chief executive with the added title of “Accounting Officer” or in a multi- academy, a new highly paid person would be recruited with these titles.

The governors’ responsibilities as trustees and directors of the company would increase. This was a frightening prospect to staff who were recruited as teachers and to governors who were focused on improving teaching and learning.

It is no wonder that RCPS got into bed with the Studio School and Rye College, particularly when a seamless transition from nursery to sixth form was attractive and their governors had already experienced the transition to an academy trust. The positive overtures made by the COE and the Heads of the schools and the glowing report from Ofsted on the Studio School added to the attraction.

Unbeknown to the governors of RCPS, however, both the School and College were making substantial deficits and Ofsted later changed its mind about the performance of the Studio School.

Strong financial management was absent with inevitable consequences to which Hulme has referred.

An examination of the accounts of other trusts on the Companies House website and reports in the press reveal that this is far from an isolated experience. In fact, you would be hard put to find an academy trust that is not in deficit.

Then there are the bad eggs that we have read about. The Wakefield City Academies Trust is the latest to raise concerns about financial management and control. The substantial reserves that individual schools in Yorkshire had built up seem to have been lost, a fate that I trust will not be shared by RCPS on the transfer of its reserves to the Rye Academy Trust. 

In conclusion, I agree with Messrs Howlett, Jennings and others that the model of academy trusts is flawed and the gap between the education in private schools and the schools under this new regime will widen.

Class sizes are too big; teaching assistants who play a vital role are paid far too little; extra-curricular activities in comparison with the private sector are minimal. Necessary building improvements are put on hold.

The idea that all will be well in the future with fewer but larger Trusts is fanciful, particularly if government funding per pupil remains largely at its present level.

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