Academies are not what the government has cracked them up to be

17 Apr

Children have only one chance in school.   We cannot afford to allow schools to fail. Gove knows it and, consequently, is in a hurry.  He is also in a hurry – like his other colleagues – because he wants to demonstrate to the electorate – by 2015 – when the Conservatives will fight the next elections – that he has improved the educational system in this green and pleasant land, making it the best or one of the best in the world – by stamping his imprimatur on it with a philosophy underpinned by robust legislation.   I have no quibble with that.

What concerns me is the method that he and his ministerial colleagues are using to get to his goal.   Focusing on England for this purpose, it is worth observing that we have one of the most diverse school systems in the world.  At one level, we have two types of schools – maintained and independent.   At another level, the number of different kinds of schools we have makes the mind boggle.

In the maintained sector, there is a range of schools which would confuse and turn off any prospective Martian colonists wishing to settle in England.  We have community, foundation, voluntary aided, voluntary controlled and free schools, academies, sixth form colleagues, City Technology Colleges (CTCs) and University Technology Colleges (UTCs).  

Since taking office in 2010, Gove, however, has been obsessing with promoting two types – academies and free schools.  Concerned about what he has stated in so many words as the parlous state of education (in the maintained sector) he has, somewhere along life’s journey, had a Damascene experience, an epiphany, that has led him to believe that academies and free schools are the panacea to all our woes.

Academies were conceived by Lord Andrew Adonis, when he served as Education Minister under David Blunkett in 2000, as a mechanism for turning around failing schools with an injection of support from the business community.   The Labour government decided that a school that was letting down our children spectacularly should be closed.   Sponsors were invited to donate £2m and the government gave a blood transfusion of between £25m to £35m to create a spanking new, state-of-the-art academy in its place.   And so the academy was conceived.

In November 2008, PricewaterhouseCooper (PWC) published its 5th report on Academies – commissioned by the then Department for Children, Schools and Families.  PWC concluded: “…many of the characteristics of Academies, such as high standards, strong leadership and governance, good quality buildings, a strong focus on teaching and learning, and building partnerships with pupils and their families, are universal aspirations for all schools wishing to improve.  The literature corroborates the view that these qualities are also evident in many LA (local authority) schools….”

The unique feature that gave them a march on maintained schools was sponsorship….”as well as the additional resourcing that sponsors bring….” the “state of the art school buildings, which are radically transforming school building stocks, leading the way in terms of school building design for the 21st century and significantly informing the BSF (Buildings Schools for the Future) programme and other major capital upgrade initiatives”.

The Academies Commission, sponsored by the Royal Society of Arts, which sponsors the academy in Tipton, and Pearson, the company that runs Edexcel, one of the three examination boards, and operates in 70 countries, published its report in January 2013. The Commission, chaired by Christine Gilbert, who was Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Schools from 2006-2011 and is currently Acting Chief Executive of the London Borough of Brent and Visiting Professor of Education at the University of London, was charged with leading a team that considered the impact of the academies programme to date and “what should happen when the majority of schools may become academies”.

The Commission, whose other members included Professor Chris Husband, Director of the Institute of Education University of London, Professor Becky Francis, Director of the Pearson Think Tank and Professor of Education and Social Justice at King’s College, London, and Brett Wigdortz, Chief Executive Officer of Teach First, agreed that the introduction of academies provided much-needed vitality to the school system.

However, from the evidence that it received, the Commission concluded that improvement across all academies was not strong enough “to transform the life chances of children from the poorest families”.  Ofsted judged (according to the National Audit Office) that half of all academies were either inadequate or satisfactory (in today’s parlance – “requiring improvement”).

Consequently, the Commission proposed three imperatives if academies were to move on an upward trajectory.

(1)        There had to be a forensic focus on teaching and learning.

(2)        Academies had to engage in a fair system when it came to admissions so that children and young people from all backgrounds – the rich, culturally well-endowed, the lame, the halt and the blind – had equal access to them.   In a word, academies had to be “inclusive”.

(3)        They had to be morally accountable to those they served – i.e. the pupils, parents and other stakeholders.   They were to operate transparently.  In articulating the third requirement, the Commission stated that the role of governors was more important than ever before in academies.  The onus was on governors to scrutinise and challenge senior management to promote effective accountability.

The findings and imperatives raise two issues.

(1)        Why is it that, given Ofsted has judged that 50% of academies are in need of improving, Michael Gove is convinced that failing schools that are not academies should convert to them?

(2)        If any school is to succeed – whatever the type (and academies are one) – there must be a focus on teaching and learning, admissions have to be fair and transparent and they must be accountable to pupils and parents.  So what is the unique selling point of academies?

Inner City Primary School (not its real name) was inspected in autumn 2012 following which it was given a notice to improve.  This came as a dreadful shock to the governors, headteacher, senior staff and parents of the school because no one at the school expected lightning to strike them.   The school, for a considerable time, had had successive inspections when it was judged to be “Good” with “Outstanding” features.   The Standard Assessment Test results over a number of years had also been so good that the school received a letter from Ofsted in the summer of 2011 informing it that inspectors decided to defer their visit by at least a year.

In the Standard Assessment Test (SATs) results for 2012, the school demonstrated not just high standards but also provided evidence that pupils made exceptional progress from Key Stage 1 to Key Stage 2.   The governors scrutinised the results and asked the headteacher at meetings of the governing body and its committees searching questions to satisfy themselves that the school was providing acceptable (if not exceptionally good) education to the children.

So what went wrong?  Even though the governors received data on the progress that the pupils had been making in every year group, they were perplexed with complex data relating to the progress as measured by the average points score (per se).   Some of the non-SATs years’ results were not as good as they should have been.  The governors were not particularly worried.  Children make progress at different rates at different times in their lives but at Inner City Primary School they came out “all right in the wash”.

However, the inspectors noticed this weakness and prior to their going into the classes of the pupils who were not doing so well, made up their minds that the quality of teaching and learning in the non-SATs classes was the culprit – i.e. not up to scratch.  They had this confirmed in some of the lessons they observed and the children’s written work left something to be desired.  Accordingly, they decided to “sink” the school with a judgement of “Inadequate” giving it a notice to improve.   They were doing their job and following the Ofsted framework of inspections – some would allege – slavishly.

It really did not matter that the school had had such a good track record or that governors were providing rigorous support and challenge.   The inspectors had adhered to the dictates of their Little Red Book.   The capacity to improve was a concept that was expunged; “the quality of mercy” was a notion that did not exist.  There had to be rough justice.

Rough justice was exacerbated by a henchwoman – a consultant – from the Department for Education – who, following the inspection findings, informed representative governors in no uncertain terms that the Secretary of State was going to convert the school into an academy.   There was no “whether or not conversion was on the table” but rather “when”. The only liberty that the governors had was to set out their criteria for the “Outstanding” academy with which they wished to be partnered.

It was sad to witness the governors being so intimidated and bullied.  While a number wished to resist the pressures, the general feeling was that it would be counterproductive to do so and could result in the school being paired with an academy which was not in line with its ethos of inclusivity.

This scenario is being replicated across the country despite The Times (the former stamping ground of Gove, who was a journalist for the publication) exposing the failings of academies.  Greg Hurst and Tom Knowles of The Times wrote on 7 January 2013 that some charities running academies had expanded so quickly that they had reduced their capacity to turn around failing schools. The journalists added that the paper’s analysis uncovered “wide variations in the performance of the academy chains committed to transforming education” in England.

The largest chain, the Academies Enterprise Trust (AET), which controls 66 primary, secondary and special academies, has now been barred from taking over more schools because of concerns over its rapid expansion and poor provision.   It has had only two academies rated outstanding by Ofsted with 30 needing improvement and 18 failing.   AET was formed three years ago.  It took on 42 schools of all types last year. E-Act, whose director-general is Sir Bruce Liddington, the former schools commissioner under Tony Blair, is responsible for 29 academies.  Only five of its academies are rated as outstanding or good. Kemnal Academies Trust, based in Kent, has 15 academies needing improvement.

Because the person in the street is preoccupied with the fiscal state of nation, there has not been much attention given to the academies thrust. The number – since 2010 – has grown like Topsy ever since Gove opened up the option to all schools rather than the failing ones for which they had been designed by Adonis.   The research has shown that there has been a gardarene-like stampede by secondary schools to convert because of the lure of lucre – not because of new freedoms that help governors and headteachers to raise standards.

Interest is now tailing off.  While over 50% of secondary schools are academies, the numbers at primary level are miniscule.   With the appetite of schools to convert blunted, Gove is keen to maintain the momentum and the only way in which he can do so is through compelling schools “in an Ofsted category” to become academies.   However, the reality is that several academies, like the schools that Gove is bullying into conversion, are also failing.   So are academies really the panacea that they are cracked up to be?  If not, what is the moral imperative for this compulsion?

Is anyone going to raise her/his head over the parapet and let Gove know that all is not right in the Kingdom of the Department for Education?   The Academies Commission, with the support of the RSA and Pearson, has made the first tentative attempt to do so.    I hope others will follow because we owe it to our young people, whose educational welfare is of paramount importance.   After all, Mr Gove, they have only one chance.

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