Educators weigh up academy opt-out offer for primary schools

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Primary head teachers have been weighing up the pros and cons of opting out of local authority control following education secretary Michael Gove's invitation for state primary schools to become academies.

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The move was outlined in the Queen’s Speech, along with plans to allow parents to set up their own ‘free schools’ with Government money but run independently.

Mr Gove said he had written to all schools, including for the first time primary schools and special schools, to invite them to apply for academy status.

Outstanding schools would be ‘preapproved’ and, subject to approval of the Academies Bill, the first of these would change status in September.

The Government said academies would be able to set their own pay and conditions for staff, have greater control of their budgets and be free from following the national curriculum.

One head teacher pondering the change is Ian Erskine, head of Fulbridge Primary School in a deprived area of Peterborough, who said he would not rule out applying for academy status in the future.

He said, ‘It looks a very complicated decision and not one we would rush into. If we get an Outstanding at our next Ofsted we would seriously look at it. My decision would be based on what’s best for the children. You might argue that it is very good for children in academies, but what about children who don’t get into an academy school?’

He said that he would need to weigh up the benefits of losing free local authority advice and support, which he said was excellent, particularly ahead of the school’s last Ofsted inspection. ‘I imagine other heads would tell similar stories. We would have to look at whether we would be confident enough to stand alone without local authority support.’

Aside from decisions about school buildings, Mr Erskine said, ‘we already have a lot of autonomy. There is very little that we – the head and the governors – can’t make a decision about on spending.’

The school is proud of designing its own creative curriculum and became a National School of Creativity last year, with funding through Creative Partnerships. Fulbridge already works closely with an academy, whose intake includes around half of its pupils.

Mr Erskine said gaining freedom from the primary school curriculum was not an issue. ‘If you’re brave enough, you can really do what you like.’

But he added that Michael Gove’s letter to heads was ‘refreshing’ because it was ‘seemingly genuine, respecting what we do as professionals.’

But Mr Erskine acknowledged that a two-tier education system could arise if good teachers and support staff move to academies, attracted by higher salaries.

Pat Broadhead, Professor of Playful Learning at Leeds Metropolitan University, said that she was concerned that academies would be ‘elitist’ and ‘divisive’.

She said, ‘My instinct tells me the coalition Government is going to make things worse. If they think the national curriculum is so bad, why don’t they change it?’

She warned, ‘Schools will be like banks. Teachers of the youngest children will get the lowest salaries. People get greedy.’

She also questioned where the money would come from to pay higher salaries. ‘You can only take it out of a finite pot.’

She added, ‘One of the biggest concerns is that they will not implement the Rose Review, which I think was trying to open up the curriculum in a positive way.’ She said the Review was about ‘building children’s interests into the curriculum’.

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