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The essential differences between an academy and a local authority-controlled school are the freedom to choose how the money is spent, delivery of the curriculum as well as the teachers’ pay and conditions. But with it comes a whole raft of new responsibilities and getting the balance right between business acumen and education standards is crucial if the model is to work.
Deemed as an outstanding school by Ofsted, Stourport High School and VI Form Centre is one of the top 100 schools in the country. As a national teaching school with a reputation for outstanding quality teaching, learning and professional development, it’s no surprise to also learn that principal, Liz Quinn, won the 2010 National Headteacher Award. The school converted to academy status in 2011.
Quinn acknowledges that financial independence can make an appreciable difference in terms of services the school provides. “Previously, the local authority had the funding to allocate education welfare officers to schools to tackle issues such as persistent non-attenders. However, if the local welfare officer happened to be on long-term sick leave and the local authority didn’t have a replacement officer, then you just didn’t have a service. Having the freedom to buy this kind of service ourselves means we can determine the quality and time we want to spend on these issues.”
Financial independence aside, Quinn believes keeping up a good working relationship with your local authority is essential for the transition to work smoothly and successfully. “I’m a great believer in working with those who can help our young people and, like us, the local authority has a lot of experience. So we manage a relationship that works for both of us and is mutually supportive and respectful.”
That said, having the confidence to cope with decisions independently is a bonus. Quinn points out that in many ways Stourport was advantaged because they already ran a “fairly independent approach in the way it would set up a budget. While we didn’t have many of the financial freedoms, our ethos, thinking and strategy were already academy-lined up.”
What gave her additional confidence that the transition would work was the fact that Stourport had what Quinn describes as “significant financial expertise in the school” by having a qualified accountant on the staff. “I don’t think we would have applied to become an academy quite so soon if we hadn’t felt that we had good financial knowledge and support already.”
Without the right support, Quinn believes it becomes difficult to achieve the required balance between a financially successful academy and a public institution of education achieving high standards. “If you don’t have the capacity in place beforehand then something will give and the last thing that you want to give is the quality and learning in your school.”
Quinn also acknowledges that it is important to factor in the growth element of running an academy and not to underestimate the pressures on existing staff. “Before we actively converted we made sure we built in the capacity at Stourport. My vice-principal’s time was freed up to take on a greater strategic role on the business and finance administration side of things. Other members of our management team were allocated to tackle the day-to-day issues.”
Many headteachers contemplating converting to an academy will have a vision of their school’s future. But in laying down a plan to grow and excel, Quinn says it’s not just about focusing on the business side of what converting to academy status brings. It’s also important to keep aligned with local needs. In terms of size and expansion plans for Stourport, Quinn’s own strategic vision is very much dictated by the issues within her own community.
“I think it is absolutely essential we are clear that our main purpose is to increase the life chances of the young people in our area and business priorities should not override that, they should support it. The business model has to be about being fit for purpose with excellent education standards that will increase the life chances of young people. It isn’t about making money and a profit — that is a completely different model. The minute that the balance shifts, then I think it will go wrong.”
At Stourport, I believe we have a very clear sense of what we want to do and have put in place a strategy that, hopefully, will see us through. It’s all about using the right expertise and public funds to improve education in our area. If our new freedoms help us do that more efficiently and better that is brilliant,” concludes Quinn.
There are many ways the new army of headteachers running the country’s academies can be likened to captains of industry. As well as being centres of learning excellence, academies have to balance their educational know-how with their ability to acquire the right business expertise and, in effect, establish a brand.
At the same time as taking the giant step towards academy status, Worcestershire-based Stourport High School and VI Form Centre was appointed as a national teaching school partnering with neighbouring school, Haybridge High School in Hagley. As national leaders in education, the headteachers of these two schools, working with a small team of specialist staff from both schools are tasked with developing best practice at local, regional and national levels.
This new role was an area where principal of Stourport High School, Liz Quinn, knew that putting in place the right expertise at the outset was key. “Becoming a national teaching school brings a different raft of responsibilities and as part of that we were already looking at bringing different sponsor governors onto the governing body to support the teaching school.”
While becoming a national teaching school at the same time as converting to an academy may be seen a step too far for many schools, Quinn believes it is helped in attracting the additional expertise required on the governing body. “It was really useful to be able to approach local people who were keen to be involved and who had a background in working in both education and business, and could bring that expertise to the school.”
She recognises too, that part of Stourport’s new found independence means it is down to her and her team to ensure that the community are kept fully informed of the academy’s achievements and developments over the next five years. “Above all, we are a local school and want to stay a local school and we need to get that message across to the community. While we don’t want to ram our recent successes down people’s throats, we do need to make sure that our community recognises what a good local school we are. So we now have people working with us to highlight our strong brand.”