Is academisation the magic bullet to school improvement ?

25 Aug

I           Government’s aim to convert stagnant schools into academies

The government is convinced that converting failing schools to academies is the panacea to education’s maladies.  Is it?

Mrs Nicky Morgan, the Secretary of State, announced that where Ofsted deems a school to be inadequate, requiring improving or coasting/stagnating, it will be converted into an academy and made over to a successful chain such as ARK (Absolutely Return for Kids) or Harris.  The new cadre of school commissioners will be given powers to intervene on behalf of her.   Commissioners will be able to bring in new leadership if required.  However, the government said that schools in trouble will be given time to improve.

In a speech marking the end of the first 100 days in power following the May 2015 elections, the Prime Minister signalled he would give all schools the chance to become academies as part of a Conservative drive to “extend opportunity to all”.  And then he added: “I want every school in the country to have the opportunity to become an academy and to benefit from the freedoms this brings. So we will make it a priority to recruit more academy sponsors and support more great headteachers in coming together in academy chains.”

II          History

When this new category of institutions was created in the early noughties, they were classified as “sponsored academies”.  It was a strategy established by the Labour Government when it promulgated the Education Act in 2002.   Mr David Blunkett, the then Secretary of State, said the aim of the government was to “improve pupil performance and break the cycle of low expectations”.  The initiative was the brainchild of Lord Adonis, former adviser to Tony Blair, and ex-Secretary of State for Transport.

An academy required a private sponsor who was expected to offer £2 million towards establishing the academy with the government providing the rest.  Many an academy at the start had government investment in the region of £30 million.  The running costs were provided by the government with funding that was docked from the local authority.

Later, the government removed altogether the requirement for financial investment by the private sponsor.  “Academisation” was deemed to be the magic bullet which was designed to address the underachievement of generations of our children.  (Even today, 8% of our population, for instance, is illiterate and/or innumerate.) By May 2010, 203 sponsored academies were established in England.

Mr Michael Gove, the newly appointed Secretary of State for Education in the coalition government formed in May 2010 brought in the Academies Act 2010, which sought to augment the number of academies.  The Act enabled outstanding and successful schools (as defined by Ofsted) to become Converter Academies and created the Free School Programme.

The number of academies in April 2011 was 629.  By August 2011, it increased to 1070 and by July 2012 to 1957.  In June 2015 there were 4,676 academies in England. There are more in the pipeline.      Over 50% of secondary schools are now academies.

While the day-to-day running of the academies is the responsibility of the headteachers or principals, they are overseen by charitable bodies called academy trusts and could be part of academy chains, which provide advice, support and expertise.  Academies have more freedom than other state schools over their finances, curriculum and the control of staff pay and conditions of service.

In 2010 the floodgates were opened to all schools to apply and convert if they could demonstrate that they were either good or outstanding. Come September 2015, the government intends to augment the academy numbers by forcing, not just struggling and failing schools, but also “coasting” schools to convert.  (See Section III in All Change at Ofsted from September 2015 for the definition of “coasting”.)  The government insists that academies drive up standards by putting more power in the hands of headteachers and principals and cutting bureaucracy.  It claims that they have been shown to improve twice as fast as other state schools.  But do they?

We have now had the Academies Act on the statute books for five years. There is merit in drawing breath and considering whether it is advantageous or not to beat a path down the evangelical road of forcing schools to morph into academies.

Ms Alison Critchley, Chief Executive of the five Royal Society of Arts (RSA) Academies sited in the West Midlands, wrote (a blog) on the RSA website on 3 August 2015, inviting the reader to reflect on five hypotheses.

Hypothesis 1: The academies policy has made it much easier to take decisive action in schools that are significantly underperforming. This has helped the schools that did not become sponsored academies (almost) as much as those that did go down the academy route.

The reality is that schools have been transformed as much by converting into academies as other institutions that remaining part of the local authority’s family of schools.  Why?  Ms Crichley posits that many schools transform because of the threat of becoming academies.   However, once a school is suspected of being a failure, it is given no option but to convert into an academy.

Hypothesis 2: The days of the stand-alone academy are numbered, and over the next few years we will see the vast majority of academies moving into a wide variety of partnership arrangements.

Academies working as part of a chain as well as local authority schools – working together – have both benefited from the experience of partnership working.   This has always been the case.  Academisation has merely thrown a light on this good practice.

Hypothesis 3: An increasingly academised system has resulted in a focus on ‘upwards’ accountability to the Secretary of State….

Government has trumpeted that schools will enjoy new freedoms by converting into academies.   This is misleading, to say the least.  Firstly, all freedoms are constrained by accountability.  No human being is truly free.  We are accountable to one another and thrive only when we improve the human condition for others.

While academies are no more accountable to local authorities, they are to the Education Funding Agency (EFA), Ofsted and, most of all, to the DfE.

Hypothesis 4: ….at the expense of outward accountability to the local community.

Many local authorities, which are meant to be democratic, lost the confidence of their local communities by failing to provide decent local services.   Go back three decades into history and we have the egregious examples of Brent, Liverpool and Sheffield who did as they pleased on the grounds of promoting equality of opportunity.  However, because LAs misused their powers does that mean that local government as a system is “a bad thing”. Would it not have been better to bring in legislation to ensure that the powers – tied to responsibilities – are used well?   It is more daunting for the government to control academies – from a distant centre – and ensure they are working well than bestowing local authorities powers to oversee institutions at close range.  To deal with the issues now arising (for which government does not have the capacity), the DfE has appointed a new cadre of regional commissioners.

Hypothesis 5: Mass academisation works fine for the vast majority of children and parents – but if the child or parent has some additional challenges the lack of a local authority back-stop becomes a problem.

This hypothesis has “got powerful legs”.  Local authorities are in a better position to oversee the working of their local schools and the provision they make for the children in their areas.   The LAs are well placed to ensure that they don’t slip.  This does not mean that occasionally do not fail. They do and there have been some spectacular examples.  However, it is more likely that government, operating from a distance, will not pick up early signs of failure, despite the best efforts of Ofsted, simply because of the numbers they have to oversee and the far flung areas of the country in which academies are located.

The reality is that where children have profound needs, parents rely on the local authorities to address them, because academies are not accountable to those in the local areas in which they live and breathe.

III        Academy chains express misgivings

An investigation carried out by The Times Educational Supplement threw a light on the serious misgivings of the organisations on which the government will be relying to take on more coasting and failing schools.  Academy chains fear that they will not have the capacity to do so.  The leaders of these chains are reluctant to speak out in case they damage the relationship they have with the government.  However, they voiced their concerns only when they were promised anonymity.

The head of a large chain said that DfE officials were “queuing up” to hand over schools in trouble to academy sponsors.  Another headteacher said that officials had even “lost track of the number of academy orders” they had signed off.   “They kept pushing us to take on more to the point where we said we couldn’t accept any more schools. They thought we had half the amount (sic) of academy orders we actually had.”

The head of a three-chain academy questioned where it would find the additional capacity to expand as a chain could only top slice 3% to 4% of funds to provide central services.   “The two most successful chains, ARK and Harris, also have the most investment.”  ARK was established by Mr Arpad Busson, a hedge fund manager, and Harris by Lord Harris who runs a huge carpet empire.  They continue to harness their vast resources for the benefit of the academies in their chains.

Another aspect that gives academies and chains considerable grief is the Education Funding Agency (EFA).  A chain leader said that the civil servants working in the EFA “don’t know their left hand from their right”.

IV        Research Findings

In July 2015, the Sutton Trust published a report, Chain effects 2015: the impact of academy chains on low-income students.  It was based on research carried out by Professor Merryn Hutchins and Professor Becky Francis of Kings College, London, and Dr Philip Kirby Senior Research Fellow at the Sutton Trust.

The authors stated that their analysis revealed the following.

(a)          In comparison with the national figures for all secondary schools and academies, the sponsored academies in this analysis have lower inspection grades and are twice as likely to be below the floor standard.   In 2014, 44% of the academies in the analysis group were below the government’s new coasting level and 26 of the 34 chains….had one or more schools in this group.

(b)          There is very significant variation in outcomes for disadvantaged pupils, both, between and within chains. Some chains continue to achieve impressive outcomes for their disadvantaged students against a range of measures, demonstrating the transformational impact on life chances that can be made. However, a larger group of low-performing chains are achieving results that are not improving and may be harming the prospects of their disadvantaged students.

(c)           Our longitudinal analysis suggests an exacerbation of this trend. The contrast between the best and worst chains has increased in 2014. Some chains with high attainment for disadvantaged pupils have improved faster than the average for schools with similar 2012 attainment. In contrast, the lowest performing chains did significantly less well over the period 2012-14 than schools with similarly low 2012 attainment. In other words, chains at either end of the spectrum have further ‘pulled away’ from the majority in relation to the attainment of their disadvantaged pupils.

(d)          Although results for young people with low prior attainment have generally fallen across all school types, on average the fall was less dramatic for chains than for other types of school, and a few chains succeeded in significantly improving the attainment of this group, an important demonstration of value. However, half the chains did less well than the mainstream school average (the average of all state-funded schools and academies).

(e)          Since 2012, the academy chains in this study have reduced their use of equivalent qualifications, but their use in sponsored academies remained above the national average in 2014. On average, they still underperformed on the EBacc measure; nevertheless, a few chains strongly outperformed other school types on the EBacc, and several more had dramatically improved results against this measure. More than half the chains exceeded the national average figure for pupils making progress in English.

(f)           When analysed against a range of Government indicators on attainment, a majority of the chains still underperform against the mainstream average on attainment for their disadvantaged pupils. As in 2012, while some of those below the average are continuing to improve, others are not.

The authors wrote: “Our findings suggest that the government stores up trouble for the future by optimistically assuming that all sponsors have the capacity to improve schools.”

They urge the DfE to expand its pool of school improvement providers beyond academy sponsors to include new school-led trusts and federations, especially if it intends to turn its guns on coasting schools.    They also recommend that before approving and commissioning sponsorship, the DfE and regional school commissioners (RSCs) specify and operate clear, rigorous criteria for sponsors and other school improvement providers based on quality, capacity, strategic model and track record.  New chains should not be allowed to expand until they have a proven track record in improving standards, they warn.  The authors go on to suggest that Ofsted be empowered to undertake formal inspections of academy chains and judge their provision.

They consider that the funding agreement be reduced from seven to five years and not renewed for failing chains.

The most successful chains are the ARK schools, the Barnfield Federation, the City of London Corporation, Harris Federation, Mercers’ Company, Outwood Grange Academies, the Archdiocese of Southwark, the Co-operative Academies Trust, the Haberdashers’ Aske’s Federation, the Priory Federation and United Learning.

Attainment and improvement measures taken together show the Midland Academies Trust to be the worst performer followed by the Meller Educational Trust, the Greenwood Dale Foundation Trust and the Landau Forte Charitable Trust.

In the analysis, the academics discovered that 26 of the 34 chains (which had to have at least two secondaries or all-through academies from the start of the 2011-12 school year to the end of 2013-14) had one or more schools that could be defined as coasting.

A report the DfE published in March 2015, Measuring the performance of schools within academy chains and local authorities, reveals that school effectiveness and pupil performance were above the national average in three out of 20 academy chains. (Each ‘chain’ included in the study had five schools or more.)   A wider analysis of academy results by the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) found no significant rate of improvement of GCSE results for academies over and above the rate of improvement in all schools.    

Three senior research fellows of the University of Edinburgh’s Moray House School of Education did a study of comprehensive schools in Scotland in Everyone’s Future: lessons from 50 years of Scottish comprehensive schools, in which they evaluate the quality of education these schools provide.  They conclude that “comprehensive schooling has worked well for Scotland, although there is work to be done to deliver a genuinely comprehensive education system that can match up to its founding ideals”.

It appears that whenever we have a problem with education in England, we alter the structure of our school system (unlike the Scots).  There has been a huge body of research that concludes that what drives standards up is the quality of teaching and learning.

Sir Peter Lampl, Chair of the Sutton Trust and the Education Endowment Foundation, should be allowed the last word on the subject.   In his forward to The Chain report, he wrote:

“The report suggests that, while there have been some outstanding performers, many chain sponsors, despite several years in charge of their schools, continue to struggle to improve the outcomes of their most disadvantaged students. While converter academies, as you might expect, perform significantly better than other mainstream secondary schools, sponsored academies still lag behind.

“The distance left to travel has been thrown into starker relief by the government’s recently released definition of ‘coasting schools’: schools that have failed to improve significantly across three years. If we were to apply that definition to the chains analysed in this report for 2014, some 44% of the schools within these chains would be below the requisite level, with 26 out of 34 chains having at least one school in this group.”

And here is one last thought following Sir Peter’s ‘final word’. When a school is judged to be failing by Ofsted, or where the government deems it to be ‘coasting’, ministers shanghai it into becoming an academy.   Given that so many academies are now judged to be ‘failing’ or will be classified as ‘coasting’, where next will this government go with them?


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