Nearly 300 primary schools applied to become academies within a week of the Government's launch of its controversial scheme allowing outstanding schools to become independent within three months without consulting staff, parents or local councils, according to figures released by education secretary Michael Gove (right).
While he was claiming an 'overwhelming response' for his flagship policy to offer primary schools academy status, early years experts voiced grave concerns that the play-based curriculum of the Early Years Foundation Stage in nursery and reception classes could be replaced by more formal teaching.
The teaching unions are bitterly opposed to the expansion of the academy programme by Mr Gove to include primary schools and special schools, and they are disturbed by the speed with which it is being introduced.
Under the Academies Bill, which is now before the House of Lords, outstanding schools could achieve independent status by the start of the autumn term.
Schools that become academies gain freedom from local authority control and are able to set pay and conditions for staff, dictate the lengths of terms and school days and are freed from following the national curriculum.
Currently, local authorities retain part of each school's budget allocation from central government to fund services such as school transport. But academies will get their full budget direct from the Government. Schools looking to switch status are being given £25,000 towards costs such as obtaining legal advice or buying new stationery and signage.
Although the Government has specifically excluded maintained nursery schools from the Academies Bill, the legislation covers nursery and reception classes.
LACK OF CONSULTATION
A spokesman for the Early Childhood Forum, which produced a briefing note for peers before the Second Reading of the Bill, says, 'Under the Bill's proposals, academies will be funded directly by Government, will be independent of local authorities, most education law, the Freedom of Information Act and nationally-agreed terms and conditions for teaching staff. They can be established without consultation with parents and local communities.'
The Early Childhood Forum is extremely concerned about the impact of the Bill on the education and care of very young children and states: 'ECF seeks to ensure that wherever education and care is provided, the focus remains on high-quality play-based provision that is responsive to the needs of individual young children.'
Philip Parkin, general secretary of education union Voice, explains the unions' opposition. 'We are very worried about the speed with which this is taking place. We obviously knew from the Conservative Manifesto that this was their intention, but if you look at the outline of the Bill, it is clear they are cutting out consultation. It is undemocratic. My understanding was that the Conservatives wanted to devolve power away from the centre and down to communities, but this is not involving communities.
'I don't think there will be local authorities left. If a lot of schools go, it will undermine the viability of the local authorities and undermine the viability of those schools that remain within LAs.
'The sole reason for opting for academy status is to get the money which the local authority now retains for central services such as transport, specialist advisers, school meals. If LAs lose the money, there is a real danger of a twotier education system developing.'
FREE FROM INSPECTION
Mr Gove has already announced that outstanding schools will in future be free from regular Ofsted inspections, so outstanding schools could shortly be free from both Ofsted inspection and local authority input. This raises the question: how will standards in these schools be monitored?
The ECF spokesman says, 'In relation to the EYFS and provision for three to five-year-olds, the ECF is particularly concerned about removing academies from the inspection framework, given that inspection under the EYFS is relatively new and that the main driver behind the EYFS is to improve quality and standards in early childhood education and care. It is a backward step.'
Professor Pat Broadhead of Leeds Metropolitan University (right) says that schools getting public funding must be accountable. 'Any organisation that receives public money has to be accountable, but the Government is saying that these organisations which will still be receiving public money no longer have to be accountable.
'If the Government is so worried about the national curriculum, why don't they address those concerns?'
Professor Tina Bruce of Roehampton University (right) raises concerns that the ethos of reception and nursery classes could change and become over-formal in primary schools that switch to academy status and lose the support of their local authority early years advisory staff.
Professor Bruce says, 'My experience is that the advisory teams in local authorities play an important role, for example, in supporting teachers in reception classes who may be under pressure to be more formal. They are able to do a good job in helping headteachers see why reception classes should not be formal.
'If schools are not going to have access to that kind of support, I think there is a risk that children's learning in reception could be narrowed, and without the advisory team, heads could decide they do not need a teacher in the nursery and it will be fine to put someone with a Level 3 qualification in charge.'
Primary head teachers contacted by Nursery World expressed reservations about academy status. 'I am not interested in the slightest,' says John Ridgley, head of Marion Richardson School in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets. 'We are a community school and always have been. Although Tower Hamlets is said to be a deprived borough, we work in collaboration extremely well together. I don't see there is much support for this. There might be one or two who change, but it would involve increasing our administrative staff, taking on a business manager and putting up our costs. I am sure there will be more money flying around, but as far as we are concerned I have spoken with the chair of governors and she is not going to recommend it and I am not going to recommend it.'
'We are not going to apply at the moment,' says Iain Erskine, head of Fulbridge school in Peterborough. 'My biggest concern is the potential for divisiveness between schools. If, as a school, you are being offered loads more money it is a difficult decision. There will be plenty of things you will want to spend it on. Academies will be able to set their own rules, but I don't think it makes a great deal of difference to the curriculum. We have a lot of freedom already.
'I just wonder whether there is some ulterior objective here and if this is the starting point to pushing the local authorities out of the picture.'
He predicts that academy heads will find their relationship changing with their governors. 'Currently we see our governors as critical friends, but when an academy has governors they become more like your bosses.'
Gillian Bainbridge, head of Montalbo Primary School, Barnard Castle, Co Durham, likes the idea of greater flexibility with the curriculum. But she says, 'It is the bit behind the scenes, and the implications that are involved worry me. We get a lot of support from our local authority and the service level agreements we have with them are very cost-effective. If you have to buy in these services I think it could be quite expensive. Obviously, the additional funding in the interim sounds great, but I do not want to take on things like managing the payroll or HR or legal issues. I am not qualified to do those things. As a head, I am here to make a difference for the children and not to start sorting out the payroll.'
Linda Phillips, head of All Saints Church of England infants school in the centre of Reading, is keen to apply for academy status so that it can become an infants and junior school. 'For us, the advantage of academy status is that it would give us the freedom to expand and grow,' she says. 'It would take us out of local authority control, but I can see there are drawbacks as I feel that schools should work together.'
'Becoming an academy takes money out of the local authority pot. I think it will be the successful and over-subscribed schools that will want to opt out, and I worry that this will result in lower standards for the others. Academy status means schools have to become totally responsible for the services and support and everything the local authority currently provides for them. We are a Church school, and the Lord will provide.'