The HR implications of academy schools

The Academies Act gives all maintained schools the opportunity to become academies.

The first tranche of these new publicly funded academies are expected to open in September 2010. They will be free from local authority control, meaning they have autonomy over the decisions they make and the education they deliver to pupils. They will also have the freedom to set their own pay and conditions for staff, and will be able to buy-in private services.

Most local authority (LA) maintained schools currently use the local council’s HR department. The LA top-slices schools’ budgets in order to fund this and a school has to pay the authority for providing services such as payroll. Under the new system, academies will be able to buy-in HR services from third parties.

What does this mean for the future of HR in the schools sector?

“Academies can buy their HR from whomever they please,” says Dale Bassett, research director at think tank Reform. “They could get it from the LA – although most feel that provision is substandard and so don’t – they can hire an in-house HR team; or they can buy the services they require from a third party.”

According to Martin Freedman, head of pay and conditions at the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL), this runs the risk of unscrupulous firms touting for business. “From day one academies will become employers. You can’t just build up an HR function in those circumstances. Our big fear is these firms saying: ‘we will do HR for you’. What could happen is the HR functions in local authorities could wither away because they would not have the schools to advise; councils could ditch their functions, which means schools that aren’t academies could struggle.”

Christine Blower, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers (NUT), is also sceptical about an upsurge in outsourcing. “In some cases the local authority or diocese may provide HR advice and support, in other cases it may be outsourced to a private provider. This in itself has led to industrial relations problems where outsourced providers failed to understand fully the context and traditions of the education service and the employment of teachers.”

However, Anastasia de Waal, a social policy analyst and director of family and education at think tank Civitas, doubts there will be an appetite for change: “We are talking about teachers, not managers here. They are glad to have the things not in their expertise outsourced so they can get on with the job they are supposed to do. Whilst I am sure there are gross inefficiencies in terms of HR functions in local authorities, I wouldn’t think it is something schools would want to take on.”

In the immediate future, when schools convert to academies they are subject to the Transfer of Employment (Protection of Employment) Regulations 2006 (TUPE), so there should be only minimal immediate effects on the contractual rights of teachers and other staff. But critics of the scheme have argued that its approach may encourage pay inequality to creep back into the system.

Blower says the NUT is concerned that teachers who are no longer employed within the local authority “family” will have fewer opportunities to move between schools, or to be redeployed in the case of redundancy. “A further concern is that a two-tier workforce can develop if academy governing bodies refuse to abide by national pay and conditions arrangements,” she warns. “Those joining the school can be employed on different terms and conditions, or offered an entirely different benefits package.”

Potential difficulties

She also points out there could be difficulties with maintaining long-established bargaining arrangements. “Historically, many employers have voluntarily chosen to recognise trade unions and apply local bargaining arrangements because of the benefits this brings to the workplace. With new employers being encouraged to look to different models, there is a danger that these arrangements could become fragmented.”

Freedman also fears the problem of pay inequality might make an unwelcome return. Currently all maintained schools have a national pay and conditions framework set by The School Teachers’ Review Body. “[The body] looks at aspects of teachers pay and conditions, and makes recommendations to government,” says Freedman. “If you remove that, and schools under new legislation are allowed to opt out, things start to become murky. It’s much more likely to result in inequality and unfairness.”

Overall, Bassett believes the move to academies is positive one and says as existing schools converting to academy status will fall under TUPE, it is “unlikely” that teachers’ pay or conditions will change significantly. However, he adds: “Over time, however, academy freedoms over pay and conditions will allow heads to introduce innovations such as performance-related pay.

“While this could act as an incentive for the best teachers, there is obviously a risk that underperforming teachers will feel marginalised. Heads will have to bear this in mind when implementing this kind of change.”

At the time of writing, about 150 schools had formally applied for conversion. Time will tell what path the future of HR in the schools sector is likely to take.

The Department for Education has a range of FAQs relating to HR matters on its website, including TUPE and pension arrangements.

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