Academies are state-funded schools which, instead of being supported by the local authority, are funded and controlled directly by central government and run by academy trusts - not for profit private trusts governed by company law.

Academies are set up through a contract (a funding agreement) between the Education Secretary and the trust. The trust has legal responsibility for the staff, assets and land of the school(s) it runs – so staff become employees of the trust.

The government is pressing schools to become academies as part of a multi-academy trust (MAT). This is where a trust oversees several schools under a single funding agreement. MATs range in size but can be very large and are sometimes referred to as academy chains. In practice, schools can no longer convert to become single academy trusts.

How a school becomes an academy

There are two ways that a school can become an academy: schools can either be forced to become academies or their governing bodies can make the decision “voluntarily”.

Forced academisation

Where a school is ‘eligible for intervention’, the Regional Schools Commissioner, acting on behalf of the Secretary of State for Education, can issue an order to close a school and re-open it as a sponsored academy within a MAT.

An Inadequate Ofsted judgement is the only route to forced academisation of a school. Other performance measures and metrics cannot be used as the basis for an academy order.

A school that has received an Ofsted inadequate judgement will be told it has no choice over its sponsor and there is no obligation to consult over the transfer. The only requirement is for the chosen sponsor to communicate to parents its plans to ‘improve the school’.

Voluntary academisation

This is when governors of a school apply for academy status. Schools which convert in this way must become academies within MATs – either new ones or existing chains – as the Government no longer allows schools to become stand-alone academies.

The process of converting a school to academy status in the case of voluntary converters can be surprisingly quick. Many governing bodies are converting because they are being put under pressure by the Regional Schools Commissioner or a diocesan board or because they feel they must ‘jump before they are pushed’.

Opposing forced academisation

The NEU is campaigning to end forced academisation and supports campaigns to oppose individual schools from being academised against their will. It may seem as though academisation is inevitable for these schools, however, more than 30 schools with Inadequate Ofsted judgements have had their academy order revoked after a follow-up inspection gave them a higher grade.

If your school has been given an Inadequate Ofsted grade, contact your local rep, branch or regional office for advice and guidance.

Opposing voluntary conversion

Academy conversion is an irreversible process with far-reaching consequences for pupils, staff and the wider community. It is not a decision that should be taken lightly by a small group of governors acting without the support of the school community and the wider community that it serves.

Don’t wait until you hear that your governing body is considering academy status before expressing the collective view of the NEU group because it will be far more difficult to build a campaign at that stage. Instead, you should ensure that all NEU members in the school are aware of the implications of academy status on their pay and conditions of employment, as well as for the education system generally.

Rights to consultation for voluntary converters

Academisation is an inherently anti-democratic process: staff, parents and pupils have few rights to meaningful consultation over whether a school should convert to academy status.

For schools converting voluntarily, the Education and Adoption Act 2016 states that: “Before a maintained school in England is converted into an academy, the school’s governing body must consult such persons as they think appropriate about whether the conversion should take place.”

The legislation states that this consultation can occur before or after an academy order, or an application by the governors for an academy order, has been made.

The DfE guidance for schools applying to convert voluntarily to academy status states: “Statutory consultation – Your governing body must consult formally about your school’s plans to convert to an academy with anyone who they think will have an interest in your school changing its status. This will include staff members and parents, but you should also involve pupils and the wider local community.”

What you should argue for

School reps and members should argue for the widest and most thorough consultation with all those affected by the school’s potential transfer to academy status.

NEU principles of consultation:

  • No school governing body should take a vote on academy conversion until after full and meaningful consultation with the whole school community has taken place. The feedback from this consultation should inform the decision of the governors.
  • The NEU believes that a ballot of key stakeholders is the best way to ensure that there is the widest possible debate and fullest possible participation in the decision-making process before taking any decision on conversion. NEU groups have successfully argued for this.
  • At a minimum, those consulted should include staff, parents, pupils, neighbouring schools, parents at feeder primary schools (in the case of a secondary school considering conversion) and the local authority.
  • The union believes the timing of consultation should begin as soon as any discussion about the possibility of academy status arises and before any vote by the governors occurs.
  • Meaningful consultation means that the school community should hear both sides of the argument – for and against academy conversion – so that all interested groups can genuinely come to an informed view on the pros and cons of academy status. This means that if the school is sending written materials to parents or posting information on its website, the case against academy status should be given equal prominence and the same weight as any arguments in favour.
  • The school should organise stakeholder consultation meetings where speakers both for and against conversion can make their case, and where parents, staff and others can ask questions and receive answers and full feedback.
  • The timing of consultation meetings should facilitate attendance by the widest possible number of interested parties. This could mean taking into account days of religious worship which might preclude some members of the school community attending.
  • Where a significant number of people affected by the proposal may not speak English, it is good practice to provide a version or versions of the consultation document in the principal language of those likely to be affected by the proposal.