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Academy status

An attractive proposition for schools and teachers?

The UK government has repeatedly lauded its academies programme as a cost-effective method of improving education by allowing schools and teachers greater freedom in terms of how resources are allocated. Its rapid expansion has been criticised by some groups, however, with several organisations claiming that it offers poor value for money.

Spending watchdog the National Audit Office (NAO) recently argued that, with one in four existing academies requiring extra financial assistance, there is a need for much closer monitoring. The group's latest study revealed that pupils from lower-income backgrounds typically performed less well in academies than those attending regular state schools.

The NAO said that academies, funded by the state but managed privately, had performed "impressively" under the Labour government, when the scheme begun as a means of boosting attainment in disadvantaged areas. It pointed out, however, that since the coalition government was formed earlier this year, top schools - largely those rated 'outstanding' by Ofsted - had been encouraged to apply for academy status. Such establishments have, in some instances, been told that their application would be fast-tracked through the system.

There are a number of reasons why such institutions may be tempted to express an interest in the scheme, with the promise of additional funding and greater freedom in teaching and use of resources most likely at the top of the list for many. Academies operate independently from the control of local authorities and often receive backing from business sponsors. In addition, they are usually given more financial freedom than normal state schools, which are audited by their local council partners.

But, contrary to the government's aims, the NAO report found that academies were not only spending considerably more per pupil, but that one-quarter of establishments were likely to require further financial support in the near future. It is understood that the Young People's Learning Agency (YPLA), the organisation responsible for monitoring Britain's academies, could spend up to £8.5 million to bail ten struggling academies out of money trouble.

Findings from the NAO suggest that around one-fifth of existing academies are forecasting budget deficits in the coming months. It has also been highlighted that, between 2007 and 2009, there were 50 per cent more senior teaching staff earning more than £80,000 a year in academies, compared with those in regular schools. According to BBC News, the department has recovered more than £4 million in overpayments from academies, because of excessively high initial estimations of pupil numbers.

"The expansion of the programme increases the scale of risks to value for money - particularly in the areas of financial stability, governance and management capacity," the NAO said, adding that, "with greater numbers of academies opening in recent years, the department's capacity to administer and monitor the programme has been stretched, particularly, as funding is administered on an individual basis".

Amyas Morse, head of the organisation, warned that the overall strong performance of academies so far did not resemble an "accurate predictor" of how the scheme would deliver across a wider range of different schools. "Existing academies have been primarily about school improvement in deprived areas, while new academies will often be operating in very different educational and social settings," he explained.

Mr Morse went on to say that there was a need to look at the exact aims of the new-style academies programme, so that schools' performances could be judged against more meaningful criteria. In addition, the NAO report suggested that it was generally pupils from more well-off backgrounds driving the fast-improving results at academies. Education Secretary Michael Gove argued, however, that the assessment simply emphasises the government's view that the academies scheme is a successful one.

"We have already taken prompt action on the NAO recommendations, as we strive to strengthen the programme even further," he said.

"The academies programme is helping children from all backgrounds to get a better education. That is why we are allowing more schools to become academies, and giving real power and autonomy back to schools and teachers."

General Secretary for the National Union of Teachers, Christine Blower, meanwhile, has said that the report should act as a wake-up call to the government. She argued that its "piecemeal" break-up of Britain's education system needed to stop.

"At a time when we are being told the country is in desperate financial straits the fact that over a quarter of academies will need additional funding to secure their future is a total and unnecessary waste of public money."