Academy debate puts a strain on Norfolk primary headteachers

Controversy over academy schools is nothing new but leaked emails show the government programme is putting a massive strain on relations between Norfolk primary headteachers. Education correspondent VICTORIA LEGGETT reports.

Right from their introduction under the last government as the 'saviours' of failing schools, academies have been a source of tension among politicians, education leaders, unions and headteachers.

But since academy status was opened up to all schools, the worries and disagreements have increased.

Now the leaking of a series of emails revealing the tensions between some Norfolk primary school heads offers evidence that those concerns, whether justified or not, are having an effect on the way headteachers work with each other.

As it was with the first wave of academies, worries over money are a significant contributor to the tensions.

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While early concerns centred on the large government handouts to pay for new buildings for old-style academies, those concerns have now begun to concentrate on the everyday funding process and whether a school getting its money from the county council is likely to get as good a deal as those getting it directly from Westminster.

The tensions have been revealed in a series of emails leaked to the EDP, in which headteachers have clashed. Those not wanting to become academies expressed annoyance at being put under pressure to consider converting, while those looking into it fear a backlash from opponents at other schools.

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Headteachers and union representatives acknowledged there are tensions among schools which were affecting the way they work with each other.

One, who wanted to remain anonymous, said he had seen all sides of the argument having worked with a number of schools in Norfolk both for and against conversion.

He said: 'There are tensions and I would want those tensions eased as soon as possible. Some of it comes from a lack of understanding. Some of it comes from a political standpoint – and I don't think we are meant to be political – and some comes from a protection of our own interests.

'Some believe there shouldn't be changes imposed on us or that it's morally wrong.

'There are a whole lot of reasons behind it. And there's some petty mindedness as well.

'We should all be able to work together, completely at ease with each other, and yet that is not the case.'

Andrew McCandlish, Norfolk branch secretary for the ATL teachers' union, said he believed one specific example stemmed from worries that local authority-maintained schools and academies would be in competition for funding.

He said: 'I've been in one academy, in very recent times, and certainly there are tensions between academy and non-academy schools. The feeling is those who are wedded to academy and those who are not wedded to academy may be in more direct competition with each other.

'It may well mean co-operation is reduced.'

Since the department for education opened up academy status to all schools in 2010, just two Norfolk primaries have converted – Martham Primary and St Mary's Junior in Long Stratton – while a further two – Costessey Junior and Heartsease Primary – are in the process of applying.

Some heads, like Dominic Cragoe at Sheringham Primary School, believe the funding system favours academies.

Mr Cragoe, who said he would not convert if he 'was the last school in Norfolk' said: 'Whilst the funding mechanism remains so unfair, I find it really difficult to understand how primaries and academies can be expected to work together as if we are one big happy family.'

He added: 'Of course I will work with all headteachers and all schools.

'But sometimes we have to choose which schools to support and clearly I would support the school most deserving of that support. That would probably come down to those schools least able to afford that support elsewhere.'

Those schools choosing to convert have equally strong views. Christina Kenna, headteacher at Heartsease Primary in Norwich, (pictured left) currently in consultation over becoming an academy, said the decision was about far more than finances.

She said: 'We are a good school, we have had two back-to-back good-with-outstanding-features Ofsteds. Our aim is to become outstanding. We feel academy status is the next step in that.

'It's something headteachers have strong views about. Not everybody believes it is the best thing for schools.'

She said the school was confident its decision was the right one and would not let fear of a backlash affect it.

But she added: 'I haven't personally felt pressure. I accept people have different views and our decision to convert is based on what we feel is best for the school.

'I can imagine some people might feel pressure.'

Joanna Pedlow, headteacher at Toftwood Infant School, Dereham (pictured far left), said 'everybody' was aware of tensions between schools over the issue of academies but stressed each school needed to make a decision based on the best interests of its pupils.

She said Toftwood Infants was not convinced converting would help the outstanding school improve further but added: 'My view is that I want to continue working with my colleagues at all schools.'

The complicated nature of the funding system does nothing to help settle the arguments.

Even Norfolk County Council children's services overview and scrutiny committee members, when discussing the impact of academisation on the authority's budget, have been left scratching their heads.

Norfolk remains relatively unenthusiastic about the academies programme by the look of the number of schools applying to convert.

But the general feeling is the trickle of headeachers and governing bodies who have decided to make the move will eventually gather pace and make academies the norm in Norfolk.

It remains to be seen whether the predicted growth in academies will serve to iron out the current problems or simply add to them.

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