Academy chains have benefits, says headteacher at North Yorkshire primary school
Hampsthwaite Church of England Primary School, near Harrogate, is now part of the Yorkshire Causeway School Trust (YCST), a group of five high-performing primary schools and one secondary school – St Aidan’s High School.
Since 2010 primary schools have been eligible to become academies, with some voluntarily converting and others being forced to do so because of poor Ofsted inspection reports.
Many top performing primaries are now choosing to become part of a multi-academy trust (MAT), with the conversion rate of primaries now overtaking secondaries for the first time, according to the National Foundation for Educational Research.
Headteacher Andrew Phoenix said: “The local authority will always have its role of operating and being available for schools, for example child protection, results and standards.
“It will have an overseeing role but in terms of our day-to-day support, it will now be coming from the MAT rather than North Yorkshire.
“We have still chosen to buy into many of North Yorkshire’s key services, and we can always call on them if we have a child protection query or a severe incident. Officially, though, North Yorkshire has more of a strategic role, rather than day-to-day advice. That’s the key change.”
Mr Phoenix admitted the school was initially reluctant to join a multi-academy trust and it took several years before the right opportunity presented itself.
He said: “The context for us was the shifting educational landscape and academy conversion was something we kept looking at. Initially we decided against it because three years ago, the local authority was providing every opportunity we needed and we didn’t want to academise on our own.
“When YCST was established there was an innovation there in the way schools could work together in the group. We looked at that and we started to consider it seriously. By then things had changed and already many other local authorities had begun to lose a lot of their resources. Some schools were converting - some were forced and others were elective.
“It was a case of weighing up the best decision for the school; to carry on in partnership if local authorities’ powers begin diminishing or to look for something else. So we took a proactive step and became part of a group of schools.”
Mr Phoenix said there was a pressure on multi-academy trusts to take on schools that had particular needs, with some expanding dramatically in a short space of time.
He said: “The difficulty is to keep themselves to their original remit. YCST is a small group of schools which are able to support each other very closely and all share a similar ethos without becoming another local authority. Part of our remit is to avoid getting too big. There is a danger of becoming larger and becoming a replica of North Yorkshire.”
The headteacher said it could feel quite a “lone situation” in the future if schools don’t have close collaborations they can work within.
However, being part of a group of schools meant that they were on hand to support each other.
He said: “It’s great because the headteachers meet up regularly every fortnight and we can talk about all sorts of issues our schools are facing. We can share skills and expertise in a very supportive way between each other. It’s the same for staff, they get that close working relationship too.”
With funding for multi-academy trusts coming directly from the Government, Mr Phoenix said there was the benefit of added financial security.
“The future of the school is secure now for more than 100 years. The funds don’t depend on how they charge at a local authority level,” he explained.
“Local authorities have always had the ability to take an element of every school fund and use it as a central resource. But we have much more say in where our funding can go than we did before. It feels like we are more in charge of it.
“There are quite a number of schools converting to academies. Failing or small schools have a very heavy subsidy from North Yorkshire in order to keep them running. This has to come from other schools’ allocation of funding. Therefore there’s a risk in the future that funding could be very tight for local authority-run schools. That’s a conundrum North Yorkshire will have to face.
“All schools are still on a national funding formula. It just feels a little more manageable that the funding stems directly from the Department for Education. You are seeing your own money rather than what the authority believes to be yours.”
Despite only being part of the trust for a matter of weeks, Hampsthwaite School was recently given spare furniture by Pannal Primary, which has just undergone a refurbishment
“Technically we are all part of one company,” said Mr Phoenix. “We are now part of the YCST, therefore all of the assets in the schools belong to the directors of that company and can be distributed as the directors see fit.”
However, Mr Phoenix pointed out that although some academy trusts may have chosen a more corporate branded route, YCST doesn’t work in the same way.
He said: “The decisions are very much made at school level, rather than from the top. The governing body still runs its school. The fortnightly meetings with the headteachers are crucial in the way the trust moves forward. It isn’t dictated from above.”
“It will also be effective for the pupils to work with other schools and share resources,” said Mr Phoenix.
“Everything has been positive so far. I am excited about the next chapter. We are making a positive change to join other like-minded schools in the vicinity.”
Deputy headteacher at St Aidan’s C of E High School, in Harrogate, Chris Burt, who is leading the development of the trust, said research suggested that where there was a shared ethos and a good geographical proximity, it allowed for collaborative working so best practice could be shared between the schools, enabling standards to reach the highest levels.
He said: “I think the increasing number of primary schools choosing to become part of multi-academy trusts is to do with resources but also to do with collaborative working. The schools involved in the trust are so pleased in what they are getting out of the arrangement.”