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12.10.14

Academy schools and the structural reform of education

Source: Public Sector Executive Oct/Nov 2014

Education policy expert Stephen Rayner questions the governance and autonomy of academy schools and explores the mismatch between expectations and capacity in local authorities’ education role.

Political background

In 2000, when City Academies were introduced by David Blunkett, the New Labour education secretary, they were promoted as a solution to underperforming schools in areas of social deprivation. They would bring ‘new’ investment (from business and commerce) into education. Government policy statements at that time referred to academies as part of “a wider programme to extend diversity within the publicly-provided sector”. These publicly-funded independent schools would be led by private sponsors from business, the churches and the voluntary sector, who would “bring a new focus and sharpness to the running of schools” (Department for Education, 2000).

The introduction of the academies programme reflected the conviction of the New Labour government, shared by its successors in the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition, that there was nothing that the public sector could do that the private sector couldn’t do better. There has been a cross-party consensus that the way to improve education is to open it up to the marketplace, with children and their parents as consumers. Schools should compete to attract pupils and should thrive or fail according to demand.

The difference between the approach of the Labour government (until 2010) and the coalition government (since 2010) has been of scope and of political ambition. For Labour, only private-sector investment and working practices could bring about the necessary improvement in ‘failing’ schools. For the coalition, the whole of the English schooling system was to be transformed. Its Academies Act (June 2010) made possible the conversion of state-funded schools to academy status as quickly as possible, with or without a sponsor. Academies would continue to receive their funding directly from the government, with no interference or top-slicing by local authorities.

Types of academy

A recent report by the Royal Society of Arts lists seven different types of academies. They include schools judged to be ‘inadequate’ in an Ofsted inspection (grade 4: the lowest grade), which are expected to become sponsored academies, and schools that are judged to be ‘outstanding’ (grade 1) by Ofsted, which are given the opportunity to become ‘converter’ academies. The range of sponsors has been broadened to include ‘educational foundations, universities, philanthropists, businesses, private school trusts and the faith communities’ (Department for Education). Outstanding schools may stand alone as academies without having a sponsor.

Academy chains

The phrase ‘academy chain’ was coined in 2004, when the United Learning Trust sponsored its second and third academies. Research conducted by the National College for School Leadership shows that by 2012 there were 52 sponsors with more than two schools in a chain. This number has now more than doubled. A chain may be a multi-academy trust, which has a master funding agreement with the secretary of state and supplementary funding agreements for each member academy. It may be an umbrella trust: an overarching charitable trust with individual trusts for each member academy. Or it may be a less structured collaborative partnership, where heads of academies work together in areas of mutual benefit.

Regulation

While operating in this new market, schools have been strictly regulated through a national curriculum, a single testing regime, reporting of outcomes in league tables, an education inspectorate (Ofsted), and for the teaching profession, performance management and a national training programme.

Accountability: local authorities

At the same time, the influence of the local authority has been significantly diminished in relation to school accountability. The local authority is expected to champion the interests of young people by commissioning sufficient school places to meet local need and by taking responsibility for standards across the area. But both legally and technically, academies are outside the control of local elected members.

Councillors face the dilemma that they are responsible for the welfare of every child in their community, but may be unable to give direction to enough education providers to ensure that every child’s needs are met.

For example, an academy, having the right to set its own admissions and behaviour policies, may exclude a child for misbehaviour and leave the local authority to find a school place for that child. But if most of the schools in that local authority are academies, the options may be limited.

Against the background of this new model for school governance in England, weaknesses are emerging in a system in which every academy is directly accountable for its performance to the secretary of state for education. Without the intermediary role of local authorities, it is difficult to strengthen accountability at local level.

Academy chains can be challenged – and in the recent example of the E-Act chain, can lose some of their academies to other chains as a result – but few academy chains are local in scope and many academies are not in a chain.

Most local authorities have had to dismantle their ‘school improvement service’, but still there are attempts to hold local councils accountable for school underperformance and for having a single vision for their school provision. For example, a recently published Ofsted letter to a director of children’s services includes the judgments that “schools do not have a clear understanding of the vision for school improvement across the local authority”, “there is not a cohesive approach to schools that are not yet good”, “senior officers have not responded quickly enough to a rapidly changing educational landscape” and “the local authority does not have the capacity to provide significant support”. There is an evident mismatch between expectations and capacity.

Accountability: academy chains

There is, as yet, no coherent process for the performance management of academy chains. The government publishes performance data on individual schools and academies and sets them out according to their local authority area. But in September 2014, only five academy chains are described in detail on the Department for Education website, under the title ‘Profiles conducted with established academy chains and early evidence to inform new sponsors of previous examples of success’. Between January 2013 and August 2014, Ofsted published inspection reports or letters on 75 local authorities and no academy chains.

If there is a new ‘middle tier’ to replace local authorities, it is not yet a publicly accountable one.

Autonomy?

One of the claims made for the academy governance model is that it gives governors, schools and head teachers more autonomy. The phrase ‘freedom from local authority control’ is frequently used both informally and (Department for Education, 2010) officially. School leaders are supposed to experience a sense of liberation, responsibility and the ability to innovate.

In fact this freedom dates back to the 1988 Education Act. Since then, financial control has been in the hands of governors and headteachers rather than local authorities. A school has been able to change its status – for example by becoming a specialist language college or a community school – either by gaining approval directly from a government agency or more recently by unilateral decision. It has been able to negotiate its own contracts for a full range of services.

Associating ‘autonomy’ with academy status is more a matter of perception than of reality. If there are constraints on headteachers’ ability to innovate, they are more likely to be imposed by the school accountability system – performance tables and Ofsted inspections – than by local bureaucracy.

Indeed, within the academy chain concept, there may be more prescription about operational matters than in any local education authority since the 1980s. An academy chain may dictate to the school leadership how its policies must be written, how the school budget should be allocated, what the staff structure should be, what priorities the curriculum should include, how the building should be configured, what colour scheme should be used, what uniform the pupils should wear, and even how some subjects should be taught. No local authority would encroach on the autonomy of governors and school leaders in these matters unless legal or statutory requirements were being breached.

The ‘Trojan Horse’ affair

Recent events in Birmingham have exposed some of the contradictions within this educational picture. The ‘Trojan Horse’ letter set out a strategy to take over the governance of a number of schools in Birmingham and run them on Islamic principles.

It would be too simplistic to ascribe the controversy and confusion in this affair to the fact that some of the schools involved are academies. The official inquiries have identified weaknesses in scrutiny dating back several years, some of which are clearly attributable to the local authority. But academies appear to be particularly vulnerable when scrutiny is insufficiently rigorous. The Education Commissioner for Birmingham, appointed by the secretary of state, reported: “The autonomy granted to those who run academies is generally a welcome development yet can make those institutions vulnerable to those without good intentions. Academies are accountable to the secretary of state but that accountability can prove inadequate in circumstances where the governors are pursuing an inappropriate agenda but where the educational and financial performance of the academy indicate that everything is fine.”

The Commissioner recommended the Department for Education “should review the process by which schools are a) able to convert to academy status; and b) become multi-academy trusts, to ensure that appropriate checks are conducted on the group and key individuals and that there is an accurate assessment of the trust’s capability and capacity. It should also consider urgently how best to capture local concerns during the conversion process, and review the brokerage (and re-brokerage) system through which schools are matched with academy sponsors”.

This is, then, a changing and developing picture, yet to be made fully transparent. It is perhaps symptomatic of the turbulence in an English education system that is, as ever, subject to a range of political, economic, cultural and social pressures.

About the author

Stephen Rayner has been a school teacher, deputy head teacher and local authority adviser. He currently works as an independent adviser to schools, colleges and local authorities. He is chair of governors in an academy and is studying for a doctorate in education.

Tell us what you think – have your say below or email opininon@publicsectorexecutive.com

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