The announcement in the White Paper that all schools are to become academies by 2020 has certainly got everyone talking. Although there is undoubtedly still a great deal of water to flow under that particular bridge there is no question that Governing Bodies and Leadership Teams of all maintained schools and any who are not yet part of a Multi Academy Trust would be foolish not to be thinking about the implications of the White Paper for their long term development. This article is not about the rights or wrongs of this policy but about the leadership processes that are essential for each school.
The danger with these kinds of announcements is that they sometimes instigate a flurry of reactive decisions based more on the superficial hype rather than a sound evaluation of the whole question. We have seen this many times in the past, for example when established options structures were ditched mid year following Michael Gove’s first and unexpected EBacc announcement. Sadly, there were examples of schools which lost their sense of direction or where seriously distracted by rushing into decisions which did not need to be made with such haste.
Having said that I fully understand why some governing bodies and leadership teams feel constrained into reacting in this way in the presence of accountability pressures and job vulnerability which has affected too many good school leaders in recent years. Even before the White Paper had been officially published I had sight of communications from some predatory trusts seeking to play on that fear and offer their hand to schools under the claim of an easy solution.
There has never been a greater need for confident and courageous leadership by level headed headteachers and Governing Bodies who retain control of their own destiny and autonomy.
Nobody should be under any illusion about the implications of this decision. Quite apart from the mechanics of becoming an academy or joining a trust a hasty decision could end up taking the school in a direction which is completely at odds with its core values and educational philosophy. A headlong rush could also prove a major distraction for a school which was fragile but heading in the right direction or one which lacked the capacity to implement it properly. On the other hand it could be the best decision a schools has ever made for its pupils.
In 2007 Robert Hill conducted an important piece of research into partnership between schools for ASCL. He found a strong intellectual case for partnership and identified many benefits of lateral learning to help speed the transfer of ideas, knowledge and new practice. There are of course many other benefits including financial, wider curriculum choice, professional development and sharing scarce staffing resources. All of this can, with the right conditions lead to improved outcomes for young people.
But there is the rub. Neither academies nor any other kind of partnership automatically guarantee these benefits. Academies are certainly not a panacea. In fact there have sadly been a number of examples of the opposite.
What was crystal clear from Hill’s research was that any partnership has to be built on the bedrock of shared and embedded values. Forced marriages are fraught with dangers. The most successful partnerships build on existing relationships and had an agreed and jointly owned plan for their development and operation. Partners need to understand their starting points, strengths and weaknesses and what they each have to offer towards their shared goals. Shared values such as trust, honesty, mutual respect and a unity of purpose are at the heart of this. There is also an essential investment in terms of time and other resources to the establishment of such organisations.
These are big discussions which need to carefully planned and involve leadership teams and full governing bodies with full facilitation of staff participation. The discussions need to be open, objective and encompass uncomfortable topics as well as the easier ones. Schools have everything to gain by getting them right.
 Achieving More Together, Association of School and College Leaders, 2008, ISBN 0 906916 83 6