Wednesday, 20 April 2016

Getting it right on academies

Today's exchanges at Prime Minister's Questions on academies were undoubtedly a victory for a Labour leader who has too often struggled at the weekly Commons joust. But they did little to enlighten those who watched them on the strengths and weaknesses of academies - nor did we get a convincing reason why ministers want to force all schools to adopt their legal structure.

As one who was there at the birth of academies, I have been a longstanding supporter of their original concept - a radical shift in the governance of failing schools particularly to improve standards for disadvantaged pupils. But I have had no problem either with some of the changes since 2010 - it made sense to extend them to failing primaries,something I argued on this blog in the past; and I am a director of a multi-academy trust having been a governor of the successful school which helped create it, using the freedoms given to us by academy status.

It is because of my commitment to the original idea of academies that I was so keen that the Sutton Trust commissioned the now annual Chain Effects reports. Accountability and transparency have to be central to a policy founded on independence, and before Chain Effects in 2014 there were no such comparisons across established secondary chains. Since then, the DFE has published its own tables and Ofsted has started to produce reports on chains, although its powers to do so need strengthening in any future legislation.

Chain Effects has shown a mixed picture, though reading some of the comments by opponents of academies one might imagine it to damn all academies. It focuses on attainment and improvement for disadvantaged pupils, on the grounds that if academies are to succeed, they must be able to do at least as well as schools generally in enabling their poorest students to get good GCSE results.

On the positive side, the 2015 report showed that this is happening in around a third of the chains examined. Some, including Ark, City of London and Harris – three chains that have been part of the academies programme almost since the start – were dramatically transforming the prospects of their disadvantaged pupils, with results well above the national average. Others that were clearly making a difference include the Outwood Grange academies in Yorkshire and the Mercers’ academies based on the Thomas Telford model. Around half of chains bettered the national average improvement for poorer pupils, six out of 34 significantly. But many others are middling or worse, and their performance raises important questions about how the programme is run and how it might move in the future.

When I blogged about Chain Effects last year, I suggested some reasons why this might be so. After all, early research by Steve Machin on the sponsored academies had been more positive. One reason was the pace of change. By 2010, there was a target of 400 academies with nearly 300 ready to open. Now there are 1600 sponsored academies and 3,700 converters, representing two thirds of secondaries and one sixth of primaries. And one reason for the success of the earliest academies was that the troubleshooting capacity of the education department and Andrew Adonis’s detailed project management, from No.10 initially and later as a minister, ensured that the crises that have affected so many chains recently were addressed quickly. But it was far easier to ensure the smooth opening of new academies when the numbers created each year were in the tens rather than the hundreds. The focus was on getting it right much more so than getting the numbers up.

After 2010, attention was initially directed at converting successful schools to academies. I supported giving them the right to do so at the time, and still do, but combined with the drive for free schools it created a capacity issue in the department that has never been adequately addressed since. There was also a real failure to insist that converters became system leaders in return for the £250,000 extra (money that local authorities ostensibly spent on their behalf) that they received in their budgets to sweeten the changes.

Now we have the latest phase of the policy. In some ways, it reminds me of how Charles Clarke moved from early scepticism about specialist schools to what would become an evangelical zeal for them as education secretary, so much so that he wanted all secondaries to become one. It turned a policy that had been achieving improvements into one that lacked differentiation and was killed off by Michael Gove in 2010, undermining an organisation that could have helped deliver mass academisation in a collaborative way in the process.

The truth is that there is no demand for forcing good schools to become academies, and there is no evidence that it will lift standards. Before the White Paper, a lot of  multi-academy trusts (MATs) had been emerging organically, often geographically based. They can play a valuable role creating economies of scale, through shared leadership and back office functions - indeed, those village schools causing Tory backbenchers to fret would be better protected in MATs with a shared head than they are now. But, while MATs can expand subject choice or improve professional development, the evidence that converting good schools to academies raises their standards is not there.

The danger of the compulsion policy is that, at a time when too many trusts are not adding value, the DFE loses focus on the failing schools, as they did in the early years of the coalition, as officials spend their time smoothing the legalities of conversions. Only this time the converters are not always going to be choosing their own fate. The weaker schools where academy status could improve their results will be the losers, as will their pupils, not least the poorest ones.

So what should ministers do now that they've announced all this, given that it is unlikely either the PM or Chancellor will want to drop the policy entirely? First, they need some tactical retreats. There is no good reason to remove the requirement of continuing parent governors, and that should be dropped. Of course, MAT boards and governing bodies need experienced directors, but they and their governing bodies need a voice of parents too. The second change they should make is to allow local authorities to create trusts with local partners to oversee academies at a sub-county or borough level, grouping perhaps a dozen primaries and a couple of secondaries together. Of course, local authorities shouldn't have majority control of the trusts any more than they do governing bodies now, but their involvement would help smooth the process where good schools are coming together. And third, the government should incentivise the change rather than mandate it, and quietly drop the wholly arbitrary 2022 deadline which makes it feel as if there is a gun to schools' heads. At some stage, a tipping point will emerge in any case if they get the incentives right.

But even that will not be enough. It still leaves the more prosaic problem of what to do with the 'middle tier' as local authorities lose their role in school standards. David Blunkett provided some good answers on that score in 2014, and the government would do well to dust them down. They should expand the number of regional school commissioners and introduce a board with local government as well as school representatives to improve accountability. And - unless they want to spend the next five years in the courts battling councils - they should leave land in trust locally.

And then they need to leave it to schools to come together in trusts themselves, helped by the legal conversion money provided by the government. DFE officials and particularly regional commissioners should focus where they can and should make a difference - on failing and coasting schools. Meanwhile, they should have a full independent evaluation of what works and what doesn't with MATs. And perhaps we could also hear no more daft statistics like the one repeated by the PM today about 88% of converters being good or outstanding, ignoring the fact that being so was a prerequisite of conversion at the start.

The tragedy of this issue is that there is a lot that is good and sensible in the white paper, where this plan provided its most toxic chapter. Ministers should allow themselves the space to advance those ideas, which can improve teaching, leadership and standards.  And there are also real issues ahead as the exam and accountability system is overhauled and detail is added to the national funding formula which very soon will require real attention from the top. Unless they address the academies issue quickly, they may soon find themselves overwhelmed.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

spot on, Conor. It reminds me of something I blogged a while ago:
Hope all is well.