Academies – Where and What Next?

2 Jan

I           The general picture

Schools continue to apply to become academies.  The Department for Education provides useful guidance on how this can be achieved.  However, the pace of conversion appears to be slackening.   In October 2013, 36 applications were in the pipeline.  Over that month, 22 were approved and 35 new academies opened.   In the country as a whole, there are now 2,481 sponsored and converter academies from a total of 3,254 applications received.   At the time of writing, 441 applications for academy status have been approved but the schools still need to convert.

The thrust for conversion continues to be dominated by the secondary schools, which, because of their larger sizes, have a greater capacity to manage their financial and business affairs than smaller primary schools.  However, fewer than one in eight schools in the country is now an academy.

On a tangential issue, as of 1 September 2013, 94 free schools classed as independent state schools – which are not unlike Academies – were opened in the country.

The rationale for establishing academies and free schools is to liberate school leaders from local authority constraints with a view to enabling them to take initiatives, be creative and develop conditions where children flourish and achieve better.   There is evidence to suggest that some local authorities have not provided the leadership that schools deserve, which has caused the latter to escape their yoke and become academies.  And many have done well.

However, the picture across the country is not what the coalition would like it to be, albeit the government is determined to follow the lead of the Secretary of State Michael Gove.

Susan Rankin-Reid, acting headteacher of Churchill Gardens Academy in Pimlico, Central London, in the Future Academies chain, resigned.   Some of her friends and colleagues aver that Rankin-Reid, who is herself an Ofsted inspector, was bullied by academy managers, following a takeover by Future at the start of the school year.  The Future chain was created by Lord Nash, the Schools Minister, and his wife and oversees four schools.  Lord Nash was a former venture capitalist, who made his fortune from government contracts.

Future Academies have their own curriculum development centre, which focuses on a knowledge-based curriculum – influenced by Ed Hirsh, the American academic.

(Dr Hirsch is the founder of the Core Knowledge Foundation and professor emeritus of education and humanities at the University of Virginia.  Hirsch developed his groundbreaking concept of cultural literacy—the idea that reading comprehension requires not just formal decoding skills but also wide-ranging background knowledge. In 1986, he founded the Core Knowledge Foundation, and a year later, published Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs To Know.

For nearly three decades, in books, articles and lectures, Dr. Hirsch has passionately argued that schools should teach a highly specific curriculum that would allow children to understand things writers and speakers take for granted and to fully participate in democratic life. “We will achieve a just and prosperous society only when our schools ensure that everyone commands enough shared knowledge to communicate effectively with everyone else,” Dr. Hirsch submits.)

Churchill Gardens was forced into academy status following an Ofsted inspection which ruled that it “required improvement”.

Annaliese Briggs, 27-year-old headteacher of Pimlico Free School, who had no teaching qualifications, resigned shortly after the academic year and only three weeks in the job.

In the closing days of 2013, we learnt that one of the first 24 Free Schools to have opened in September 2011 will be closed after two failed inspections.  Michael Gove, Secretary of State, has sanctioned the closure of Discovery New School in Crawley, West Sussex, when inspectors reported that it was making insufficient progress after it was placed in special measures.  This is the first Free School to be shut.  Parents now have to scramble around in the next three months to find an alternative school for their children.

The school, housed in a Grade II listed villa, cost the DfE £2 million to establish.  The school was run in accordance with the educational philosophy and principles of Maria Montessori, the Italian educationist who believed that allowing children practical experiences to make their own discoveries was the best way to promote development.

In Derby, the Al-Madinah Free School, which opened in September 2012, had a damning report from Ofsted following a visit from inspectors.  Ofsted demanded of the governors that they cease immediately “practice and procedures that have as their reason, cause or effect that women and girls are treated less favourably than men and boys”.

Following his visit on 29 November 2013, Wayne Norrie, HMI, wrote to the Chair of Governors:

“There are no signs of improvement in the school. Insufficient action has been taken to address the numerous failures in leadership and teaching. In addition, the uncertainty around governance and leadership has contributed to the school being less stable than it was at the time of the last inspection. This school remains in chaos.

“The school is not improving because relationships between school leaders, at all levels, are destructive and deteriorating. …..The interim Principal is currently absent and governors have asked the willing, but inexperienced, vice Principal to lead the school during this period of absence. She does not, however, have the necessary knowledge and skills to ensure the school makes rapid progress.

“The school’s plans are not good enough; they lack clear targets and actions. Teaching staff are not given clear messages about what has to be done. School leaders are not holding teachers to account for the quality of teaching, which remains inadequate and, more worryingly, is not showing any signs of improving.

“Governors have worked hard to ensure that pupils are now safe. (But) They do not monitor the work of senior leaders effectively as they are too involved in the day-to-day running of the school. Governors do not have the necessary understanding, experience or expertise to make decisions about how the school should operate.

“The trustees have written a statement of action but this does not indicate how the school will tackle the weaknesses identified in the inspection. As a result the trustees have not communicated a clear strategy which will ensure that the quality of leadership and teaching improves.”

The government may give the school breathing space to demonstrate that it has the capacity to turn away from disaster, as governors have taken action to ensure that the pupils are safe.

However, while the school has been censured by Ofsted, it has also come under fire from two opposing forces – secularist and local Muslims complaining that the school wasn’t sufficiently Muslim.

II          What does an “Academy” really mean?

The dictionary definition of an academy is “a place of study or training in a special field”.  Examples of these are military and dance academies, where a rigid discipline focuses on particular objectives.

At the turn of the millennium, the then Labour government introduced the term to describe sponsored schools that had been struggling to exist.    As a consequence of bringing in business troops with additional resources and injecting considerable government funding, the struggling schools became, at the government’s behest, academies.   They were rebranded and designed to impress the public with a new disciplined and academic focus that pervades the independent, public school sector.

In 2010, the term, “academy”, morphed.   Gove opened up the academy gates to all good and outstanding schools.   A number of former independent schools also converted, especially as they, like the country, were going through difficult financial times and were keen to receive state funding.

III        How successful are Academies?

In its full report, Unleashing Greatness, the Academies Commission, chaired by Professor Christine Gilbert, former Chief Inspector of Schools, looked at research. While the members of the Commission discovered examples of success, they did not find that many shining exemplars of transformation.  The Commission commented that several local authority schools in disadvantaged areas had performed “just as well as those which embarked on the academy route”.  These views were shared by Dominic Cummings, Gove’s former adviser, who, in an article in The Guardian, stated that “academies are no panacea and the successes of a small number of brilliant organisations are not necessarily scalable”.   He added that many academies were badly run and, like other schools, probably played the league table games under pressure from Whitehall.

Professor Stephen Gorard of Durham University stated in his recent research that academies, especially the converter ones, were strongly linked to levels of socio-economic segregation.  He observed: “The risk that this poses for societal cohesion and social justice is being run for no reason.”

There is an allied concern.   Top schools which have become academies were meant to support underperforming ones.  However, a cross-party group of MPs warned that this was not happening.   The Commons Education Select Committee said: “During this inquiry, we received overwhelming evidence that converter academies are not living up to this expectation and pulling their weight when it comes to supporting other schools.”

Despite this situation the government continues to engage in dubious practices. Where a school has been given a notice to improve or is in special measures, the DfE sends in its commissars to compel it to link with an outstanding academy with a view to converting eventually to academy status.  The legislation requires schools that are failing to link with outstanding institutions whatever their status.

There are several examples of both, successful and unsuccessful schools resenting being compelled into this type of ‘alliance’.   A recent example is that of an outstanding infant school in Surrey that was told to link with the (failing) junior school with which it shares the site.  However, before doing so, the DfE wanted the infant school to become an academy.   A DfE representative met the headteacher and chair of governors urging the infant school to go down this avenue, which was the route that the junior school was having to take.  The governors had no wish to do so because of the considerable amount of extra paperwork that would involve, which would detract from its core purpose of providing that outstanding education for which it had been recognised by Ofsted.

The DfE representative then informed the infant governors that if they did not become an academy, officials would have to go to another outstanding academy and establish the link with the junior school.  Given that 95% of the infant children move to the junior school, the governors were concerned.  Following further reflection, they have now decided to join the converter academy brigade.

Situations such as this are quite extraordinary, given that Michael Gove bleats about how he has increased choice for schools.

“We want you voluntarily to opt to become an academy,” pronounces the civil servant.

“Do we have a choice?” ask the governors.

“No, not really,” replies the official.”

“All right, then we will opt to become an academy!” respond the governors.

IV        Unintended consequences

The government faces two other challenges, unless the current legislation is changed.

(1)        Firstly, the pupil population, which is 8.2 million, is set to rise by 700,000 by 2020.   Local authorities, who once led the creation of new schools to cater for these bulges, are proscribed from doing so without first inviting the community at large to express a desire to establish academies or free schools in their areas.   The fear is that, with the influxes recently experienced in inner city areas, school expansion will occur haphazardly and in an untimely manner.  Several Free Schools have opened but not necessarily in places where there is an under-capacity of provision.

(2)        Secondly, where academies and free schools are not doing as well as they should, there is nothing between these institutions and the government to sound the warning bells and/or provide the necessary assistance.   This, previously, was the duty of local authorities.

Even Sir Michael Wilshaw, Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Schools, whom Michael Gove, the Secretary of State, described as “My hero!” is concerned.  This is the reason why he has created the posts of eight regional inspectors to monitor the attainments of pupils in schools across the maintained sector but especially academies and free schools.

V         A possible way forward

It would be futile, I believe, to turn the clock back. There was never a golden age for education.   However, if the present system is to work better, new arrangements have to be put in place to ensure that educational provision develops on the basis of considered research and reflection and free-for-all situations are ended.   The market – we learnt in 2008 – has to have control mechanisms.  They are not the cure to all our woes.  The same applies to education.

The Academies Commission, which published its report in January 2013, must have the last word on the subject.  The members stated that the Commission “strongly supports the aspirational vision that lies behind the academies programme. They added: “There have been some stunning successes among the individual sponsored academies and academy chains and these have achieved even in the most deprived areas. But it is increasingly clear that academy status alone is not a panacea for improvement.”

The Commission made the following recommendations to strengthen the governance in academies.

(1)        The DfE should act to increase understanding of the pivotal role of governors in the academy system, which should include a focus on their responsibilities not only as company directors of charities but also for wider school improvement.

(2)        Using the National College for Teaching and Leadership, the DfE should take steps to support the capacity of governing bodies, and in particular, the Chair.

(3)        Schools should advertise the appointment of new Chairs as part of an open recruitment approach and involve at least one independent person in the appointment process.

(4)        Using the National College, the government should find more ways to increase school-to-school collaboration across governing bodies to encourage capacity building through development and training and to secure better value for money through shared procurement.

(5)        To encourage engagement and to support local accountability, academy trusts should publish annual reports and provide forums for open discussion with their stakeholders.

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