So, where were you when the Academies Act 2010 received Royal Assent, five years ago this week?
No, I don’t remember either, and I certainly had no idea at the time what an enormous impact it would have for me personally – without that change there would be no RSA Family of Academies – or for the educational landscape as a whole.
When the Act received Royal Assent there were 203 academies, all sponsored, almost all secondary schools (there was also a handful of all-through schools), usually opening in brand new buildings, and all replacing previously struggling schools or being set up as new schools in areas of significant deprivation. The Academies Act 2010 changed all that, opening up academy status to primary and special schools as well as secondary schools, and using significant financial incentives to support and encourage schools deemed by Ofsted to be good or outstanding to become academies.
That academy total now stands at just over 4700 schools. More than half of all academies are primary schools – although as there are far more primary schools than secondary schools this means that whilst the majority of secondary schools now have academy status, becoming an academy remains a minority pursuit for primary schools. Convertor academies now out-number sponsored academies, with roughly 3300 convertor academies and 1400 sponsored academies in total.
If there were any doubt before the General Election there can be no doubt now that academies are here to stay. Whether and how far academies contribute to raising attainment is rather less clear cut, despite a huge amount of energy being invested in exploring this issue over the last five years.
The RSA’s own Academies Commission reported on this issue January 2013, concluding that, 'There have been some stunning successes among individual sponsored academies and academy chains, and these have raised expectations of what can be achieved even in the most deprived areas. But it is increasingly clear that academisation alone is not a panacea for improvement.'
The Education Select Committee reached a similar conclusion when it reported on Academies and Free Schools in January 2015, with the Chair, Graham Stuart, commenting that, ‘it is still too early to know how much the academies programme has helped raise standards’.
And just last week the Sutton Trust published their second report looking at the impact of Academy Chains on the performance of pupils from lower income families, Chain Effects. Their headline finding was that whilst a small number of academy chains are making a positive difference to the attainment of pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds and those with low prior attainment on entry, 44% of the academies in the analysis group were below the government’s new ‘coasting’ category, and 26 of the 34 chains analysed had one or more schools that would fall into this new category.
If the evidence of academies having a positive impact on standards is patchy, what are the other implications of academies policy, and an increasingly academised system? I’ve got a few ideas, but these are more based on personal hunch and anecdote than any systematic review of data or evidence – I’d love to hear what you think.
Hypothesis one: 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. As the Academies Commission and others have highlighted, there are great examples of schools that have been transformed in terms of results and reputation coinciding with their transfer to academy status. But other schools have secured similar transformations and remained as community schools. My hypothesis is that academy policy can take a significant slice of the credit in BOTH cases, because even for a school that remains with the local authority the ‘threat’ of academisation galvanises the governors and local authority to take the difficult and potentially expensive decisions to affect rapid change.
Hypothesis two: 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. The statistical evidence seems to support this one. The DFE data shows that a growth in the number of convertor academies who, like Whitley Academy and Holyhead School in the RSA Family, have CHOSEN to be part of a larger group - 1400 of the 3300 convertor academies listed are shown as having some sort of sponsor/partner. Our experience working with the RSA Family of Academies is that working as part of a group brings enormous advantages from improved opportunities for continuous professional development through the RSA Academies Teaching School Alliance, to a variety of opportunities for pupils to collaborate and compete, to the opportunity to build strategic partnerships like that with Warwick University. I’m therefore very much hoping this this hypothesis proves correct!
Hypothesis three: an increasingly academised system has resulted in a focus on ‘upwards’ accountability to the Secretary of State…. For all the rhetoric of freedoms and flexibilities the changes to schools accountability systems at both primary and secondary, together with the explicit threat of Ofsted down-grading and forced academy status for schools that refuse to play ball by teaching the prescribed range of subjects to a particular level, leave schools with little room for manoeuvre. The proposal for the ‘compulsory e-bacc’ has been met with almost universal condemnation – I say ‘almost universal’, in fact the recent SSAT survey of school leaders found no support for this reform. And yet, for all the talk of a school-led system, it would take a very brave Head Teacher and Governing Body to ignore the changes to the accountability framework and take decisions purely on best meeting the needs of their particular group of pupils. Leaving aside (for now) the merits or otherwise of the ‘compulsory e-bacc’ proposals, can it really be sensible to be effectively imposing on schools a system that virtually all those who know most about education i.e. those who are delivering it on a daily basis, disagree with?
Hypothesis four: ….at the expense of outward accountability to the local community. What does local accountability really mean? Too often the concept is tied up with democratic accountability, and a school’s relationship with the local authority or elected Members. I see it more broadly. Is the school accountable to local families by having an admissions policy that prioritises children living nearby? Does the school remain part of their local community of schools? (For an example of an academy that is choosing not to work as part of the local community of schools take a look at recent events in Redditch.) Are they doing their bit to help meet the unprecedented demand for new school places? Does the school work well with the wider set of children’s services to meet the needs of their most vulnerable children? And is the school developing a broader set of relationships with local businesses and employers, facilitating visits for younger pupils and opportunities for work experience or careers talks for older pupils, and listening and responding to the views of local employers when planning curriculum provision? Academies can and many do do all of these things exceptionally well. The risk, however, is that with a focus on upwards accountability and pressure on budgets it becomes harder to maintain a proper emphasis on these areas.
Hypothesis five: 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. Of all the issues covered in the Academies Commission the one that received the greatest media coverage was the possibility that some schools were taking the, ‘low route to school improvement’ by using their admissions criteria to secure a more advantaged intake. The Academies Commission was hampered by an unwillingness to name names, although evidence of academies using a ‘fair’ banding system that on the face of it is anything but fair, or losing large numbers of pupils from their roll is not hard to find. What is less clear is whether these are isolated incidents or indications of a more widespread picture. I suspect that the vast majority of academies, like those in our RSA Family of Academies, are using straightforward admissions criteria little changed from their pre-Academy days, with school communities that are highly representative of their local community. But whilst a small number of schools appear to be bending the rules the perception that academies are somehow cheating the system remains.
So where do we go from here? Academies are here to stay, and in many parts of the country already comprise both the vast majority of secondary schools and a significant minority of primary schools. As local authority services to schools are cut further and the government’s coasting schools policy takes shape there can be no doubt that the proportion of schools with academy status will increase further.
There is therefore a responsibility on all of us working in or with academies to help ensure that a largely academised system works in the interests of the local children and their families. That means fully understanding and acknowledging the risks and weaknesses of a largely academised system, as well as identifying and celebrating the successes. It means taking steps to act on the former and share best practice on the latter. If you would like to be part of this process do get in touch.
Alison Critchley, Chief Executive, RSA Academies