The academisation of the education system, started by Labour and accelerated rapidly by the coalition government, is a mixed bag of educational provision – as might have been expected.
There are some excellent academies, but as numerous Ofsted inspections have shown, there are also poor ones. Some demonstrate excellent teaching and learning, while others have been found to be lacking.
While many strive to be truly inclusive others manipulate their admissions, taking a “low road” to school improvement by selecting more able pupils.
The findings from an investigation into the academies progress by the Academies Commission, convened last year by the Pearson think tank and the RSA, has much to commend it but offers no major surprises.
Critics and opponents of the mass academisation of the state education system have said it all before.
What the Commission, led by Christine Gilbert, the former chief inspector of schools, has done is to confirm many of those concerns as genuine.
The panel, which included Professor Chris Husbands, director of London University’s Institute of Education, and Brett Wigdortz, chief executive of Teach First, found that some academies use covert selection methods and are cherry-picking middle-class pupils to skew their intakes and so improve their results. This offers quicker outcomes than strategies to strengthen leadership or raise standards of teaching.
This, said the Commission’s report, has “attracted controversy and fuelled concerns that the growth of academies may entrench rather than mitigate social inequalities” – a problem that could only get worse as more schools converted.
The report states: “Numerous submissions to the Commission suggest some academies are finding methods to select covertly.”
It quotes evidence from David Braybrook, an educational consultant for SEN and disability, who raised several of these concerns in his oral evidence to the Commission.
The report adds: “He reported that while some excellent practice takes place in some academies that have a thorough understanding of their obligations, this is not consistent; some academies are extremely poor in terms of dealing with special educational needs and interpreting their obligations. He also observed covert practices of steering SEN pupils towards other schools, along the lines of ‘This school is not for you. Your child would be happier elsewhere’.”
There was a lack of transparency over the way academy sponsors were chosen, the Commission found, and some governors were simply not to up to the responsibility that was being conferred upon them.
Academy chains also came under the spotlight as often seeming more focused on expansion than improving the schools they were already running.
Ms Gilbert said some chains had caused the Commission concern because “we felt that not only were they expanding too quickly but they weren’t linking improvement into the process”, though she would not be drawn on naming them.
Crucially, the report, entitled Unleashing Greatness, stated that academy status in itself was “not a panacea for improvement”, and that what is needed is a “new, determined focus on the detailed implementation of the academies programme to ensure that it realises its transformative potential”.
More attention is needed to ensure that academies are working effectively, rather than on the process of creating them.
The Commission outlined three “imperatives”, backed by recommendations, to ensure that the successes of the academies programme became embedded across the board, and achieved what it set out to.
First, the panel wants to see a “forensic focus on teaching and its impact on pupils’ learning”. This would involve greater collaboration between schools, including support to those converting to academy status. Leadership should not be judged outstanding by Ofsted unless there was evidence there had been a contribution to system-wide improvement and collaboration.
A new Royal College of Teachers would encourage more effective use of pedagogical research, and more rigorous selection and training was required of governors to ensure they can fulfil their legal responsibilities. Many had admitted to the panel that they felt ill-equipped to carry out their duties.
Second, the Commission wants to see a guarantee that all children and young people have fair access to academy schools, with an independent appeals process dealing with disputes. Furthermore, academies should be required to publish socio-economic data about who applies and who is actually admitted.
Third, there should be greater accountability to pupils, parents and other stakeholders.
Local authorities should assume a “watchdog” responsibility as “champions of the child”, while the “beauty parade” of secretly appointing sponsors should be replaced with a fair, open and rigorous selection process.
Moreover, the performance of sponsors should be compared through an annual report compiled by the Office of the School Commissioner. Accountability should also be improved through regular and formal reporting to parents and the community, via open forums or meetings, to encourage broader discussion.
Ms Gilbert said: “There are already many examples of stunning success; however academisation alone cannot bear the burden of improvement. There has to be enough support and challenge in the system, and enough checks and balances, for academies or groups of academies to be able to use the independence they have gained professionally and with moral purpose.
“In a successfully academised system, we will see schools supporting and learning from one another to improve the quality of education in this country. They will operate as a community of schools, each independent but working best if connected to the rest of the system.”
She said the process of academisation in itself would be meaningless “unless a number of things happen at the same time – the process alone won’t do it”.
A DfE spokesman said: “We make no apologies for accelerating the programme – if we had delayed, thousands of children would have continued getting a second-rate education. Sponsors are carefully selected through a rigorous process and have a superb record of transforming below-par schools and raising standards.”
Academies report: Union reaction
Brian Lightman, Association of School and College Leaders: “The key elements in raising standards are inspirational teaching and strong leadership. Therefore the key question is whether academies are using the freedoms they have to benefit students. Acquiring the label of ‘academy’ is not in itself a panacea for raising achievement. The capacity of those schools to make a real difference will be entirely dependent on the quality of leadership and teaching and learning.”
Chris Keates, NASUWT: “The report highlights the genuine risks to fairness and equity created by the government’s headlong rush to academise the education system. In particular, the focus on the wholly unacceptable manipulation of admissions processes to covertly select pupils exemplifies the unfairness and inequity inherent in so many of this government’s education and social policies. As the Commission emphasises, many of these inappropriate practices in the academy sector have become embedded because of the lack of democratic oversight and public scrutiny to which academies are subject.”
Christine Blower, National Union of Teachers: “The report highlights the fact that the process for approving academy sponsors is deeply flawed and that some academy chains are more concerned with expanding their empires than with improving schools.”
Dr Mary Bousted, Association of Teachers and Lecturers: “Academies face the same challenges as other state schools, and have similar success rates in meeting those challenges. Many schools, both academies and state schools, work exceptionally hard to provide an excellent, rigorous and challenging education to all their pupils. This report ... rightly supports our argument that schools that improve have done it through a relentless focus on teaching and its impact on learning.”
Dorothy Lepkowska is a freelance education journalist.