FEATURE: Are academies the right move for Mansfield’s schools?

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With the recent move by Rainworth’s Joseph Whitaker to convert to an academy, it means almost all of the secondary schools in the Mansfield area are no longer under the guidance of the local council.

Ten of the existing 11 schools are now funded directly through the state and overseen by a charitable body - a trust - by providing advice, support, expertise and a strategic overview.

Carl Atkin, of Brunts Academy has defended his school's switch.

Carl Atkin, of Brunts Academy has defended his school's switch.

Only Garibaldi College in Forest Town remains in the mainstream, funded through Nottinghamshire County Council.

The ‘academisation’ scheme was once a policy designed to aid schools that were failing to make the grade.

The Government continues to push for all schools to be converted by 2022, but for some it has not seen results improve.

Mansfield’s Manor Academy fortunes have not yet reached a satisfactory level since the conversion - in the eyes of education watchdog, Ofsted, anyway.

Joseph Whitaker is the latest school to become an academy.

Joseph Whitaker is the latest school to become an academy.

The school was heavily criticised earlier this year and told it must improve.

The same can be said for Queen Elizabeth’s Academy. Having been under the guidance of one academy trust for a number of years, the school has been put in special measures three times in the space of four years.

It recently switched to a new trust and the headteacher left with minimal fuss.

For most schools it’s clearly the need to improve that drives them, for others its to help move from a ‘good’ Ofsted-rated school to an ‘outstanding’ one.

Then there are other schools who feel it could provide greater independence.

But it is not a policy favoured by all.

Liam Conway is a former teacher in Kirkby who now serves as the Nottinghamshire secretary for the National Union of Teachers (NUT).

He has kept a close eye on ‘academisation’ since it was first introduced and poses serious doubts over its worth.

He says the academies are modelled on the American education system, which he pulls no punches with by describing as ‘abysmal’.

Liam also pointed to Sweden where it has been tried, and is failing, while Finland has modelled its education on the British comprehensive scheme of old, which is succeeding, ironically.

“With academies, there’s pressure to get these kids through at all costs and it affects the way education is delivered,” Liam said.

“This has become results-driven and it forces the management in these academies into cramming and short-term learning to have these kids pass.

“It puts pressure on everybody.”

From a media point of view, academy conversions hasn’t always been good news.

Transparent dialogue between headteachers and the local press once provided a balanced account of the school’s issues for which they could be held to account, and rightly so.

In its place came academy PR staff, often looking to bury negative news or at least send it into a gentle spin.

And this apparent smoke screening within the academy system has made it even harder for the teachers themselves to have a voice, according to the NUT’s Liam Conway.

“There are some trusts which are more professional than others that do talk to us but there are others which are cowboys,” he told the Chad.

“With them it’s cloak and dagger stuff, there’s little transparency.

“Sometimes the only way to get information out of them is through a Freedom of Information request, but that can take a long time.”

However, from some schools, the academy system is working.

At Brunts Academy in Mansfield, they made the switch in January 2012 and have gone from strength to strength.

They became part of the Evolve Trust, a multi-academy group for which they have now become the lead school.

Headteacher Carl Atkin said financially, they have been able to manage the school better which has only benefited the pupils.

“One of the biggest benefits is the ability to centralise our resources and get better value for money,” he said.

“This means we are able to direct more resources to students in the classroom.

“It’s something that’s worked for us and has certainly not damaged anything.

“We’ve also been able to assist other schools and it’s about sharing resources and expertise.

“Ultimately it’s down to the quality of the teaching and learning, and whether you are an academy or not, this is the key.”

This is a view shared by Councillor John Peck, who is chairman of the children and young people’s committee at Nottinghamshire County Council.

He said becoming an academy is simply not a shortcut to improving results, and added: “The most important thing is the quality of the leadership and the quality of the teaching, not the badge above the door.

“There’s no evidence that becoming an academy improves standards. It has in some cases, but not in others.

“I’m not against academies but I would say to any headteacher or governor that they need to go into it with their eyes open.

“They may think they will get more independence but I’ve found that most state schools actually have far more independence without having a chief executive of a wider academy trust.”