Release date: 16/03/2016

In today's budget, the Chancellor has announced that governing bodies of local authority maintained schools will have four years to make the decision to convert to academy, or they will be forced to do so. Emma Knights, Chief Executive of the National Governors' Association, gives her take on what this means for schools in England.

Lockers credit: Ingram Publishing

Today the Chancellor said amongst many other things:

“…education reform has been so central to our mission. Today we take these further steps. First, I can announce that we are going to complete the task of setting schools free from local education bureaucracy, and we’re going to do it in this Parliament. I am today providing extra funding so that by 2020 every primary and secondary school in England will be, or be in the process of becoming, an academy.

"Second, we’re going to focus on the performance of schools in the north, where results have not been as strong as we’d like. London’s school system has been turned around; we can do the same in the Northern Powerhouse and I’ve asked outstanding Bradford head teacher Sir Nick Weller to provide us with a plan.

"Third, we are going to look at teaching maths to 18 for all pupils. And fourth, we are going to introduce a fair National Funding Formula – and I’m today committing half a billion pounds to speed up its introduction.

"We will consult, and our objective is to get over 90% of the schools that will benefit onto the new formula by the end of this parliament. The Government delivering on its promise of fair funding for our schools. Tomorrow my RHF the Education Secretary will publish a White Paper setting out further improvements we will make to the quality of education."

National Governors’ Association welcomes the additional money to speed up the introduction of a much needed reformed school funding formula. We are also pleased that there is going to be consideration of support for school improvement in northern areas where it is needed; and we hope the government will also call on the wisdom and experience of those who were involved in the London Challenge.

Although we need to wait for tomorrow’s Education White Paper to see the details, it appears that governing bodies of local authority maintained schools (which by the way are not local authority ‘controlled’) will have four years to make the decision to convert to academy, or they will be forced to do so. The Chancellor used the phrase “Confronting the obstacles that stand in the way of important improvements to education and our children’s future”, so it may well be that recalcitrant governing bodies will be removed.

In the autumn of 2015, the prime minister announced his wish that all schools would be academies by 2020, so we were of course expecting the Department for Education (DfE) to lay out in its forthcoming White Paper how this might be achieved. We had hoped, forlornly it now appears, that government policy would remain one of local decision making. We have lost count of the amount of times that ministers have talked about increasing ‘autonomy’ and ‘freedoms’ for schools, while at the same time introducing other policies which meant schools, including academies, were not in fact free to decide their own approach.

What's a White Paper?  White papers are policy documents produced by the government that set out their proposals for future legislation. 

Most government pronouncements talk about freedoms being given to school leaders and teachers, when it is actually boards of academy trustees who are responsible. And no matter how many times we protested to the DfE – and indeed to No.10 after the prime minister’s speech – this mantra was repeated, as it is again in today’s coverage. This does not fit well with a government which promised to raise the profile of school governance.

Yet over the past five years, governing boards of both maintained schools and academies have taken on a number of really difficult decisions. The decision as to whether to convert to academy status and/or join a group of schools has been among the most difficult. Many – mostly secondary schools – have opted to convert, whereas the majority of governing bodies have not seen the benefits for the education of their pupils, or have not been ready to convert. A few years ago I caused a bit of a brouhaha at the Academies Show by suggesting that small schools – those with fewer than 200 pupils – were usually not well enough equipped with business management staff to convert on their own, and should not convert on their own but instead join a group of schools. This has since become the prevailing view, and last term we published with ASCL the guidance Forming or Joining a Group of Schools: staying in control of your school's destiny.

Since that publication and the Prime Minister’s speech, there has been huge interest from governors and school leaders about how to form or join a multi-academy trust, in many cases a resigned interest along the lines of: "well, we are going to have to do it, so we might as well work out the best way for our pupils."

Other developments would have pushed more schools in the direction of academisation anyway – the hope of a better chance of capital funding, the reduction of local authority support, and for those who want to help failing schools, this is the route for ‘sponsoring’ others.

Forcing people to make a particular decision is not the way to bring them on side or to convince them that your argument is a strong one. It says you must agree with us, or else.  It says, we don’t actually trust you to make the right decision for your school. It says, we don’t actually value the time and the thought you have put into your local school – as volunteers. It says, we, the politicians based in Westminster, know what is best for your school and your community, even if you don’t. Furthermore these schools, which will be forced to convert, are good schools; it’s one thing to take over underperforming schools, it’s quite another to overrule those who are leading good schools.

Why has the Government taken this route?  Russell Hobby wondered in the TES this morning: “what problem [is] universal academisation...designed to solve?”  It is a question baffling those of us who have spent the last five years working with governing boards in both maintained schools and academies. For the avoidance of doubt, NGA does not tell governing bodies what is best for their school, their pupils, and their community – our charitable aim is to improve the outcomes for pupils by improving governance in state schools, and we work with our members in all types of schools to do just that. We provide our members with information they need and questions they should ask.  So far there is nothing which shows that academisation is a magic wand to improve education.

It may be a cliché to say people matter more than structures – but good governors, school leaders and teachers do make the difference to pupils’ education.  Yes, structures may help or hinder, but good people will ensure the former are developed.  The mass academy movement is still relatively new, as is the growth of multi academy trusts (MATs), and most of them are reviewing structures in order to iron out early problems. MATs that grew too fast have tended to get themselves into problems, and not had the expected benefit for pupils. Improving schools cannot usually be done at huge pace; decisions to expand need to be reflective. 

As I wrote in Schools Week, this is a time of revolution in governance. By and large, most of those governing are attempting to make the new roles work in the interests of the pupils, and I am guessing that most governors will get on and make as good a decision as they can within the context that Downing Street is setting us. It will be tough; can the system cope?  Everyone has finite time, and within schools, this is very much being taken up with changing curricula and assessment, and workload issues already at the fore. For governing boards:

  • It will be a time of reducing budgets for many schools and difficult decisions for governing boards about how to balance their budget
  • Recruitment and retention of teaching and leadership staff is not easy: our collective energies need to be concentrated on making sure we are encouraging people to join the endeavour of the education of our children
  • Where in the system is the local help and brokerage? Who is there to facilitate schools coming together and working out which groups will be sustainable and work best?

This piece has gone on longer than I meant it to and yet still only touches the surface. I am exasperated about the shorthand used by journalists, many of whom do not understand the nuances of school structures. This, combined  with politicians’ rhetoric, obscures the real issues schools are facing. With all the forthcoming school funding changes we don’t yet know how individual schools with be affected but the additional expenditure required on such things as pay and pensions over this parliament is likely to represent the equivalent of 8-10% cuts.  This is what those governing schools will be dealing with: and it would be helpful if the government could be mindful of that.

PS There was a rather nice sweetener. The Chancellor also announced the introduction of a sugar levy: “The OBR estimate that this levy will raise £520 million. And this is tied directly to the second thing we’re going to do today to help children’s health and wellbeing. We’re going to use the money from this new levy to double the amount of funding we dedicate to sport in every primary school. And for secondary schools we’re going to fund longer school days for those that want to offer their pupils a wider range of activities, including extra sport.”

Although this is tinkering with the system and the reintroduction of a limited pot of funding (of the sort which the Government originally set about getting rid of), it would be very churlish not to welcome the additional funding and the emphasis on sport.


Since the publication of the Department for Education’s Educational Excellence Everywhere White Paper (see our briefing and comments), the intention to force all schools to become academies has been opposed by many stakeholders. NGA was join signatory of a letter published in the Sunday Telegraph in March: 

SIR – The forcible transfer of 17,000 schools to academy status within the next six years, as proposed in the Government’s White Paper, will be a huge distraction from schools’ core functions of teaching and learning. Instead of focusing on children’s education, school leaders will be forced to hire lawyers, consultants and accountants, and manage the transfer of school land and buildings.

This is not what parents want from their schools; nor was this proposal part of the manifesto that the current Government put before the electorate. Under the White Paper’s plans, parents could also be banished from school governing boards.

What schools need most is stability, so they can make the latest reforms work. We stand ready to work with the Government to ensure we have an education system that meets the needs of all children and has the support of school staff, parents, local authorities, diocesan bodies and existing academy trusts.

Christine Blower General Secretary, NUT Mary Bousted General Secretary, Association of Teachers and Lecturers Cllr Melinda Tilley (Con) Cabinet Member for Children, Education & Families, Oxfordshire County Council Cllr Joe Caluori Executive Member for Children and Families, LB Islington Russell Hobby General Secretary, National Association of Head Teachers Lucy Powell MP Caroline Lucas MPHenry Stewart Co-founder, Local Schools Network Jon RichardsHead of Education, UNISON Emma Knights Chief Executive, National Governors’ Association Michael Rosen

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