Transformational change will be delivered by schools’ shared endeavour to improve learning, guarantee fair access, and establish stronger accountability.
The dramatic rise in the number of schools choosing to become independent academies does not necessarily represent a ‘panacea for school improvement’ and the Government should do more to encourage them to use their new found freedoms to drive up standards in the classroom, according to a report published by the Academies Commission.
Whilst noting many stunning successes, Unleashing Greatness concludes that driving excellence in teaching and learning particularly requires schools to focus rigorously on what’s happening in classrooms, with greater expectations around collaboration and school to school support.
Set up by the Pearson Think Tank and the RSA to examine the long term impact of academisation on educational outcomes, the Commission’s Report argues that the Government must apply a more systematic approach towards implementing the next phase of the academies programme as well as a forensic focus on teaching quality if its transformative potential is to be truly realised.
The Commission’s Report brings together international and national research into school autonomy and additional evidence gathered through written and oral evidence sessions, focus groups and workshops and surveys, from practitioners, parents, students and other educational experts.
The report concludes that the responsibility to deliver fair access should be reinforced, with greater accountability to key stakeholders, especially parents, backed by strong, expert and independent governance. By doing this, the commission argues, the words ‘academisation’ and ‘improvement’ will become inextricably linked.Chaired by Christine Gilbert, the Commissioners outlined three imperatives, backed by recommendations, to ensure that the successes of the Academies Programme are embedded across the board:
1) A forensic focus on teaching and its impact on pupils’ learning
Schools rather than local authorities should take responsibility for the provision of school improvement activities, with expectations around collaboration and school-to-school support built in to applications to convert to academy status.
No school should be judged outstanding for leadership unless it can provide evidence of its contribution to system-wide improvement, such as support for the improvement of another school.
An independent Royal College of Teachers should be established and pump-primed by Government to encourage more effective use of research to develop classroom practice.
There needs to be a radical shift in the capacity, knowledge and attitude of school governors if they are to take on the increased scrutiny and challenge expected in an academised system and fulfil their legal responsibilities as directors of charitable companies.
This development can be supported by greater collaboration between governing bodies across schools. Chairs of governing bodies should also be appointed through a rigorous open process, and there should be more systematic support for governing bodies based on stronger use of data and training.
2) A guarantee that an academised system is fair and equally accessible to children and young people from all backgrounds
Academies and maintained schools should be placed on a common footing regarding admissions. The Secretary of State should identify an independent organisation to provide an appeals service for disputes over individual cases relating to admissions.
Academies should be required to publish comprehensive socio-economic data about who applies and who is admitted, with the Office of the Schools Adjudicator responsible for acting on suggestions of a lack of parity.
3) Greater accountability to pupils, parents and other stakeholders
Local authorities should replace their role in providing school improvement services with a broader responsibility to act as “champions of the child”.
The practice for appointing sponsors, commonly known as the ‘beauty parade’, should be ended and the DfE should design a selection process that is open, fair, rigorous and supported by clear criteria.
More stringent evaluation of skills and capabilities needs to be applied to the selection of sponsors, with terms of sponsorship reduced from seven to five years. The Office of the School Commissioner should produce an annual report which includes a comparison of the performance of sponsors.
To support good accountability, there should be regular and formal reporting to parents and the local community. At academy trust level, this might be in the form of an annual report underpinned with an open forum, held either in public or online, encouraging broader discussion.
Commenting on the report, Chair of the Commission, Christine Gilbert said:
“The ambition and pace of the government’s academies programme cannot be doubted. The Commission set out to make a contribution that will help to translate that vision into widespread and sustainable educational improvements. There are already many examples of stunning success; however academisation alone cannot bear the burden of improvements.
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.”
Notes to Editors
2. The Academies Commission was established in 2011 by the Pearson Think Tank and the RSA. It is sponsored by the Pearson Think Tank, the RSA, the Co-operative and CfBT Education Trust.
3. Membership: Chair of the Commission Christine Gilbert is Visiting Professor at the Institute of Education and was formerly Chief Inspector, Education, Children’s Services & Skills at Ofsted from 2006 until 2011. Commissioner Professor Chris Husbands has been Director of the Institute of Education since 2011. Commissioner Brett Wigdortz is Chief Executive Officer of Teach First, and has led the organisation since its launch in July 2002. Director of the Commission, Professor Becky Francis is Director of the Pearson Think Tank, and Professor of Education and Social Justice at King’s College London.
4. The first ‘city academy’ opened in 2002. By May 2010 there were 203 academies, some in chains and with more directive funding agreements. By the beginning of November 2012, when the Commission began work on the report, 2456 Academies were open, with many more going through the process of academisation.