Vision and distinctiveness: An RSA Academies retrospective

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  • Education
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After 10 years of operation, RSA Academies (RSAA) officially closed its activities on 31 March 2022. In that time the project has engaged some 15,000 children and young people. This was one of the most substantial projects we have undertaken in recent years.

Through the RSA Academies project, we demonstrated that we’re not simply a ‘think-tank’ but we’re committed to impact on the ground. RSA Academies was a major investment in developing the potential and success of young people.

We began our engagement with the academies programme with our sponsorship of the RSA Academy in Tipton, Sandwell, in 2008. Following the early success of that initiative, we were inspired to go further. We established RSA Academies in late 2011, in the flourish of activity that followed the 2010 Academies Act, which encouraged good and outstanding schools to become academies, and opened the door to more sponsors.

From the outset, the moral purpose of the RSA Academies project was clear: to improve the life chances of young people. From quite modest beginnings, RSA Academies supported the growth of a family of schools in challenging communities in the West Midlands. Today, its work is proudly being continued by the Central Region Schools Trust. The Trust comprises eleven academies in Birmingham, Sandwell, and Worcestershire. The Central Region Schools Trust embodies RSA Academies’ foundational purpose and commitment to ‘social justice through exceptional schools.’

As well as intending to drive school improvement, RSA Academies set out to offer a truly distinctive experience to students in the academies, reflecting the vision and values of the RSA. Many students were able to enjoy extraordinary experiences such as the annual Artsfest and Takeover Day, the latter of which brought young people to London (sometimes for the first time) and RSA House for a day of inspirational activities.

RSA Academies and being RSA

The report, Vision and distinctiveness, published today, describes the unique aspects of RSA Academies’ approach to education. This aimed explicitly to encourage a special ethos within the academies so that they became authentic expressions of ‘being RSA’.

RSA Academies’ early priorities were to support activities related to the development of the arts within the curriculum and a commitment to high-quality careers education. As the number of schools grew, and the role of RSA Academies matured, those early priorities evolved and expanded into three major areas of focus or ‘Commitments’, relating to the promotion of the arts, culture, and creativity; preparing young people for the world beyond school; and sustaining the well-being and mental health of the whole school community.

This work led to a comprehensive statement of the distinguishing features of being an RSA school. A ‘partnership framework’ was created, describing the respective roles of the schools and RSA Academies in promoting the RSA ethos. The link to the RSA gave a context for purpose and values and provided a means for shaping the identity of the schools. The whole programme was founded on ethics – building the agency of students and teachers alike and ensuring that disadvantage should not impede success.

We can now confidently build on the legacy of RSA Academies to support the development of a wider network of schools aligned with its vision and values. This network aims to create a movement of practitioners, young people, researchers, and entrepreneurs allied to education's three-fold purposes: to develop broad learner capabilities; to encourage individual agency, and to strengthen communities (all features of the RSA Academies’ project).

RSA Academies was established amid the energy that followed the 2010 Academies Act when there were just 203 academies in England(Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales have separate education systems). Today, there are approximately 10,000 academies in England spread over 2,536 trusts. The white paper, Opportunity for all: strong schools with great teachers for your child, published on 28 March 2022, sets out the case for all schools in England to become academies by 2030. This would require the remaining 12,000 maintained schools in England (61 per cent of all primary schools and 20 per cent of all secondary schools) to convert to academy status over the next eight years or so. But how realistic is this aspiration?

Full academisation delayed

The first observation is that a fully academised system has been previously proposed. In the 2016 white paper, Educational Excellence Everywhere, a deadline for local authorities to no longer maintain schools was set for 2022. That proposal was quickly dropped following political opposition. It remains to be seen whether the new timescale will be more palatable, while the expectation of two general elections between now and 2030 may make that date seem far away.

It's also unclear from Opportunity for all whether the government intends to legislate for full academisation in England by around 2030. Recently, ministers have shied away from the notion of compulsion. The new white paper proposes statutory powers for the secretary of state for education ‘to bring a local authority’s maintained schools into the academy system where a local authority has requested this as part of their local strategic plans’. But what happens if local authorities have no such plans, or schools flatly refuse to participate? The prospect of local authority-led multi-academy trusts may be a sweetener for some schools that would prefer to remain aligned to their local authority. But after years of austerity, not all schools believe their local authority currently provides an adequate level of support or value for money, and other options may seem similarly unpalatable.

To achieve complete academisation in England by 2030, the Department for Education will need to restore the same sense of urgency that followed the 2010 Academies Act, of which the establishment of RSA Academies was part. If the current flattening of the rate of conversions to academy status (which was apparent even before the pandemic) continues, then only two-thirds of young people will be in academies by 2030. It is more likely that, without a statutory basis for full academisation, only some 80 per cent of young people will be in academies by that date.

Percentage of pupils in academies since the 2010 Academies Act

Collaboration in all its guises

Schools do need to collaborate, but there are other forms of collaboration in addition to multi-academy trusts (which are a single legal entity), such as federations, strategic partnerships, and local collaboration trusts (in which schools retain their autonomy while formalising partnership arrangements).

Opportunity for all is entirely silent about the fragmentation within the current academies system. As of April 2022, over half of all academies are single (or ‘stand-alone’) academy trusts, while 80 per cent of all academy trusts have five or fewer schools in them. The white paper proposes trusts of at least 10 schools or 7,500 pupils (that is, the equivalent of 36 one-form entry primary schools!). The average number of pupils in a trust is currently approximately 1,800 (the median will be much lower), so the target will require not only the establishment of new (and quite large) trusts but a process of consolidation and merger of existing trusts. That may not be straightforward since the governors of those trusts are charity trustees and are required to act exclusively in the interests of their beneficiaries. The whole notion of mergers is problematic in this context.

The white paper sets out the benefits to schools in belonging to strong trusts and extols the virtues of good governance and leadership and a shared vision across the schools. ‘An ambitious vision, underpinned by shared values’ facilitates a ‘shared trust culture’ and ‘an improved sense of direction and purpose’. Yet, here’s the rub. Vision should always precede the design of strategy or structures. Schools investigating the possibility of joining an existing or nascent trust need to think carefully about the synergy between their vision and values and those of the receiving trust. This requires a deep reflection on their purpose, the nature of the communities they serve, the relevance of their curriculum in those contexts, and their arrangements for admissions and inclusion. They also need to consider how, in the spirit of wider collaboration, they will contribute positively and add value to the whole provision of education in the area beyond their catchments.

New academies shouldn't repeat the mistakes of the past

In the impetus for more academies, it would be unfortunate if some of the mistakes of the early years after the 2010 Act were repeated. Twelve years ago, in their zeal to remove schools from local authority control, ministers signed off some quite inappropriate arrangements where schools had little in common, or trusts were allowed to grow too quickly without the appropriate supporting infrastructure. It would also be a missed opportunity if a ‘fully trust-led system’ resulted in a homogenised landscape where trusts are largely indistinguishable from one another.

The experience of RSA Academies demonstrates that, over time, a truly distinctive – indeed a unique – ethos can be developed that delivers cohesion and a unifying sense of identity and purpose. A ‘trust-led system’ needs to be as distinctive and diverse as the communities it serves.

Read the full RSA Academies: Vision and distinctiveness report.

What's been your view on the RSA Academies project? What do you hope to see carried over from our work by schools in the academy system in the future? Let us know in the comments below.

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  • I've followed (from a distance) the RSA Academies story from the beginning. It was in fact that initiative that brought me into the RSA. I could see many difficulties along the road and was interested in how they would be tackled. I've read the Vision report and will have some contributions to that later. But, for the present: the 'development of a wider network of schools aligned to its (RSA) vision and values' ... with 'education's three-fold purpose' could be discussed. Few schools could disagree with this triangle, and I'm wondering if there are no existing networks with these aims. Also, what's the general thinking on establishing these networks?

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