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Should primary school Head Teachers be chasing academy status?

A leading primary school in Swindon has become the first in Britain to join the government's academies programme, after it was labelled 'outstanding' by Ofsted inspectors. While the school's Head Teacher is rightfully proud of the achievement, the announcement certainly raises some questions. The academy scheme has seen some success in boosting the performance of secondary schools in some of Britain's most deprived areas – but is a move into the primary education sector a step too far?

Are younger children likely to benefit from this relatively new approach to learning? Or will it lead to inconsistencies and an overly complex system? Furthermore, how might academy status affect teachers and classroom assistants working in such institutions?

Mike Welsh, Head Teacher of Goddard Park primary, told the Guardian newspaper that, while the school's new status was cause for celebration, the process had so far been "really hectic". He revealed how the school's business manager, Fiona Godfrey, governors, specially-appointed solicitors and the local authority had all worked throughout the summer holiday to implement the school's transformation.

Mr Welsh said that he is committed to the principle that no teaching staff will be disadvantaged by Goddard Park's new status. He also insisted that staff would not be poached from other schools, tempted with offers of much higher salaries. This has been the controversial tactic deployed by some new academies, with less-advantaged schools slamming this approach for depriving them of the experienced and motivated individuals they so desperately need to improve.

In the months following Goddard Park's application to opt out of local authority control, the academies debate has continued with no end in sight. The Liberal Democrat conference, for example, voted against the creation of more academies, warning of the unease felt by many with regards to the scheme's radical approach to funding and governance. Mr Welsh, who is also chairman for the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT), has said that the group's policy is generally supportive of schools choosing to opt out.

Many school leaders have argued, however, that Michael Gove's Academies Act incentivises Head Teachers to make selfish choices that run the risk of negatively affecting other local pupils."If the best schools opt out, the authority is then left to support the remaining, lower-functioning schools, with a depleted budget and fewer success stories to share good practice," explained NAHT member Liz Robinson, Head Teacher at Surrey Square junior school in Southwark, London.

"This is precisely how the inequalities and gaps get bigger – and I seek to find ways to lessen inequalities of opportunity, not deepen them," she added. Also critical of the academy scheme's expansion is Kate Frood, another NAHT member and Head Teacher at Eleanor Palmer primary school in Camden.She has claimed that offers of additional funding can skew a school's perspective, leading it to forget its wider mission.

"I really resent my moral purpose being tested by the lure of money. Of course my primary allegiance is to my school, but the vast majority of heads I know have a real commitment to being part of a community of schools," she explained.  Ms Frood added: "There is a real sense of mutual respect for the different contexts in which we work. Everyone is better off where inequalities are less; creating all this choice will only widen the gap as savvy parents play the system and schools nearer the bottom of the pond are dumped on."

Goddard Park head Mr Welsh has insisted, meanwhile, that while full budgetary control will benefit his pupils, other schools in local area also stand to benefit."We are still part of a family of schools. As part of this process, for instance, we have to work closely with another school to raise their attainment," he explained. In addition, Mr Welsh has called on the Department for Education to allow other local schools to become academies as soon as possible, "otherwise it will be seen as this benefit only being for outstanding schools", he has warned.

However, whether other Head Teachers will be as enthusiastic about joining the scheme is still somewhat uncertain. Ms Robinson admitted that she was "not particularly confident" that academies using extra funds to introduce a greater range of services would benefit schools in the long run."Economies of scale will be lost and, in addition, procurement with a due process is time-consuming and complex, with many staff relatively inexperienced in negotiating contractual arrangements," she argued.

The debate is certainly not a straightforward one – and it is far from reaching a conclusion.Some would suggest, however, that in a time of austerity, a local authority's ability to serve schools well is placed under significant strain.There may therefore be grounds to pursue the academies programme as a means of allowing schools and teachers – even at a primary level - greater control of their own resources.

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