It is the first week of the new school year and Academy chains are already back in the news. Last week Ofsted wrote to AET (Academies Enterprise Trust) expressing concern that too many pupils were not receiving a good enough education, and yesterday the House of Commons Education Committee continued their scrutiny of Academies and Free Schools with an evidence session involving representatives of Academy sponsors and local authorities.
For all the controversy Academies are here to stay, irrespective of the outcome of next year’s General Election. And good news that is too, given the growing body of evidence that some Academy chains are making a positive difference to outcomes for pupils – see for example the Sutton Trust report Chain Effects on the impact of Academy chains on low income students. That said, yesterday’s Select Committee reminded us of concerns about the Academy programme as currently conceived that just won’t go away: limited local accountability; too much money being diverted from the classroom through top-slices; and signs that some academy chains are failing to provide sufficient support for school improvement.
A reluctance to address these issues risks damaging the Academies sector as a whole. Three simple changes could improve the system dramatically.
Firstly, as recommended to the Education Select Committee yesterday, we need to change the arrangements for consulting on establishing an Academy. At present it is the proposed sponsor for a new Academy that leads the consultation on whether they should be the sponsor for that school. This almost inevitably creates the impression that the outcome of the consultation is a foregone conclusion, and gets the relationship with the local school community off on the wrong footing. Far better for this consultation to be carried out earlier and by an independent third party. This could be the local authority perhaps, or the new Regional School Commissioners, or under Labour’s proposed changes, the suggested “Directors of School Standards”.
It is also essential to address what the RSA’s Academies Commission memorably described as “the low route to school improvement” – schools changing their admissions arrangements (overtly or covertly) to secure a more socially or academically advantaged intake. Perhaps the most obvious weakness in the current admissions arrangements for Academies is that both admissions and appeals are dealt with by the Academies themselves. Parents have no recourse to any independent body should they feel that their application has not been handled fairly. (The Office of the Schools Adjudicator can look at a school’s admissions policy, but is not involved in making decisions about the admission of individual pupils.) The Local Government Ombudsman (LGO) has the power to investigate and reach judgement in the case of admissions issues raised by parents in respect of Community and Voluntary schools, but, as they highlighted last week, not for Academies and Free Schools. Assuming that levels of concern about admissions are similar in Academies to the levels in other schools, this means that hundreds of parents each year feel that their child's admission has been mishandled, but cannot get the case independently investigated. Giving the LGO the same powers in respect of Academies that they have for other schools would serve these parents. Moreover it would benefit the Academies sector as a whole by closing down admissions as one of the main avenues of attack for critics of Academies.
Finally we need to allow schools that are performing well the option of leaving their Academy chain. As I see it, the whole point of Academy chains is to provide support to the staff working in the schools to improve outcomes for the children in the school. Our own experience with the RSA Family of Academies is that being part of a group improves outcomes for children in a number of ways: through support for school improvement; by securing savings on support services freeing up funding for the classroom; and by giving more and better opportunities for both staff continuing professional development and student enrichment. My hunch is that the majority of schools in the majority of chains are also feeling these benefits, and would choose to stay in their chain. Forcing the few that are unhappy to stay with an incompatible or inadequate sponsor does none of us any favours.
Alison Critchley is Chief Executive of RSA Academies