The Department uses words like “partner” to describe the relationship between a school and its “sponsor” but that seems very misleading to me. As indeed does the word “sponsor”.
I recently attended a presentation given by one of the Department’s “Academy Brokers” – apparently employed (or engaged – I am not sure whether he was a civil servant or a private contractor) to go round to maintained schools and persuade them to step forward to be converted into academies.
I was struck by some quite misleading (and important) inaccuracies in what he said – reassuring those present, for example, that the school would still be a maintained school after it had become an academy!
It is, of course, possible that was just a slip of the tongue.
But what was clearly not was the repeated use of the word “partner” and “partnership” in association with the word “sponsor”. He stressed the school would gain ‘freedoms’.
His core suggestion was the school should pre-empt a future Ofsted inspection by jumping now before it is pushed. In particular, the inspection might (so he reasoned) grade the school only “satisfactory”. In that case (in the new Ofsted world) it would then be classified as eligible for intervention (the DfE appears to have made up its own term “in category”). That would allow for forced conversion by the Secretary of State.
At that point, the school community would have no choice – he explained – because the school would be converted into an academy with a sponsor chosen and imposed by the Department. (That, of course, overlooks the fact that there would need to be consultation on whether the school should be converted – but parents/governors who have been through the process always seem to feel it is a foregone conclusion. So maybe the way this Academy Broker explained it the reality, even it is not the law!)
Rather than wait for that, the school governing body should – so he suggested – apply to be converted ‘voluntarily’.
That would mean that the governing body could ‘choose’ a ‘sponsor’ to become its ‘partner’. The Department would make suggestions (or the governors could look elsewhere) and the governing body could decide.
I suspect that pitch is being given to governing bodies around the country.
So what does it actually mean?
Of course, it is for the Secretary of State to decide whether or not to enter into a funding agreement and with whom. So presumably, the ‘choice’ is not unlimited. The Secretary of State may well decide that the sponsor ‘chosen’ is not one he likes. So, like ‘parental choice’ when it comes to school places, it is more a question of expressing a preference, rather than actually choice.
The standard (indeed universal I think) practice of the Department is that the funding agreement should be a contract between the Secretary of State and an “academy trust” (a bit like a company). So the ‘sponsor’ is technically the trust. Like a company, it has ‘members’ and ‘directors’.
Where the ‘sponsor’ is another academy (perhaps a local secondary school) what that actually means is that the trust which runs that school will enter into a further contract (funding agreement) with the Secretary of State to provide the education at the additional school. It is now a trust (i.e. a single legal entity) providing education at two sites (or more, as it takes on more schools).
Where the sponsor is a local business, or perhaps an FE college, or one of the ‘chains’, there is still a trust set up.
So (for example) ‘sponsorship’ of an academy by an FE college means that academy being run by a trust set up by the FE college. And, although the members of the trust may (say) also be the governors and principal of the college, the trust remains a separate legal entity from the college (albeit perhaps with there then being a contract between them under which the college provides services to the trust to deploy in the schools it provides).
So, before conversion, the maintained school was a freestanding legal entity (run by its governors, employing staff, entering into contracts, etc), now it simply becomes the local site at which the trust in question provides education under contract with the Secretary of State. So if a sponsor has 5 academies, what that actually means is that the trust they have set up has contracted with the Secretary of State to provide education at 5 sites. The academies are simply the locations at which the trust delivers education.
And what is still termed the ‘governing body’ is simply the local committee to which the trust board may (or may not) allow some freedoms.
And so it is a complete nonsense to say that the school has gained freedoms.
It has, in law, ceased to exist as a separate legal entity – it is now under the total control of the trust. It has no freedom at all because it does not exist to have freedom!
The governing body (or head teacher) will only (say) be able to decide which cleaning company, coach company or builders to engage if the trust gives it/them that ‘freedom’.
Likewise, it can only set its own (say) uniform policy or even make its own curriculum decisions within the limits set by the trust.
To many, that will look like a dramatic loss of freedom.
Likewise, if ULT or Ormiston or ATT ‘sponsors’ an academy, it is simply one of the many local sites through which the trust in question delivers education under contract with the Secretary of State.
Imagine if Asda took over my local corner shop: would the people who worked there or shopped there feel it had gained freedoms? And would they say that Asda now ‘sponsored’ the shop?
Of course not: it would be the local site through which Asda delivered its services.
No doubt Asda gives its local shop managers a certain latitude in how they run their store ….
And so the word ‘partner’ is particularly inapt.
The word implies a relationship between two legal entities.
But there is only one entity now: the trust. It is not in ‘partnership’ with the academies it runs in any way I understand that word to mean.
Is each of Asda’s stores in partnership with Asda? Of course not.
So when the Academy Broker suggests the governing body of the current maintained school can ‘choose’ a ‘sponsor’ who will act as the ‘partner’ of the school when it converts to being an academy what he actually means is that they can express a preference for the trust that will take over and run the school.