BACA, PACA, DACA and all that
Reading it made me wonder about the use of the word ‘Community’ in the names of these academies. Parents in Darwen voted against their school being handed over to the Aldridge chain. When James Fox, the head of PACA, was suspended, no explanation was given to students, parents, local councillors or the local media. So what is the chain’s relationship to the communities they purport to serve?
Summing up the Hove Park campaign
Listen to Natasha Steel from Hands Off Hove Park School talking about the campaign which successfully opposed the academisation of Hove Park School. She was speaking at a meeting of the Anti Academies Alliance.
The academies programme loses its way forward
Gove has gone and it now appears his academy programme is losing the plot. Aidan Pettitt reports from a recent Westminster Forum event – The future shape of England’s school system – academies, free schools and accountability and policy options. At the event, speakers from the Department for Education, local authorities, schools, academies, Multi-Academy Trusts (MATs) and campaigns aired a number of contentious issues.
The failure of academies to become the norm was evident when the Schools Commissioner for England – the opening speaker – presented data showing that less than a fifth of all schools are academies. Rather than creating a norm, the education policies pursued since 2010 have created a more divided and fragmented system of education than for decades. Interestingly, the Schools Commissioner seemed to emphasise the introduction of Trusts – as alternatives to Local Authorities – rather than the creation of academies that then require Trusts. A twist to come?
A number of speakers broached the lack of accountability of academies and free schools. There was a heated exchange between a journalist covering the event and one of the speakers, an academy Executive Head, over excessive pay for academy heads. The Regional Schools Commissioner who spoke seemed unsure if his powers would be robust enough to limit the over-generous and lax freedoms that have been given to MATs. Confidence fell further when the Director of Education at the National Audit Office (NAO) seemed unsure whether the Education Funding Agency was an ‘arms-length body’ or not and was unfamiliar with the NAO’s own 2012 report into academies.
Oddly, one speaker from a MAT suggested that being a primary academy trust meant more bureaucracy, more accountability and not enough funding! As someone murmured from the audience: well why become an academy then? Others pointed out that all schools are underfunded but local authority schools at least choose to collaborate with each other to share resources.
The role of Regional Schools Commissioner was also criticised for being interested only in academies and free schools. One delegate asked why his school, an outstanding local authority maintained school that had chosen not to become an academy, was being excluded from the Boards established by the Regional Schools Commissioner to improve standards through partnership. A good question not really answered.
Speakers from both the platform and the audience wanted explanations from the Department for Education over the willingness to spend millions of pounds on free schools that were simply not needed – and embarrassingly almost empty in a number of cases – when many local authorities face a shortage of school places. Department for Education speakers suggested that the new criteria for free schools would take into account school place planning data but they sounded less than convincing.
Inevitably, an audience concerned with education will always agree on the need to provide the very best education for children and speakers mentioned the importance of improving the achievement of pupils, closing the achievement gap or raising performance. The rhetoric has been easy but as more data becomes available and is shared at events like this one it becomes apparent that the academy programme is no more able to meet these ambitions than local authority maintained schools.
One left the event wondering: so, other than the privatisation of schools, what exactly is the point of the academy and free school programme? The answer wasn’t forthcoming from the event – interesting and informative as it was.
The academies programme: approaching ‘inadequate’?
Aidan Pettitt’s presentation to the Westminster Forum (see above)
Shortly before the 2010 election, Professor Stephen Ball from the Institute of Education said “Academies are one of a number of small steps … leading to the dissolution of the state system, … education will no longer be organised and delivered by the local authority, but by private providers” (Prospect Magazine March 2010). A few months before, an opposition MP offered another view: “Schools should be engines of social mobility. They should enable children to overcome disadvantage and deprivation so they can fulfil their innate talents and take control of their own destiny.” A worthy ambition; are academies overcoming deprivation and disadvantage? Before answering that question it’s worth reflecting on how much academies are able to contribute.
In 2010, the Michael Gove anticipated academies would become the norm. But the latest Department for Education data shows that of the 20,000 schools and academies in England, only around 4,000 are academies. Some 80% of all schools are still local authority (LA) schools.
In 2010, the Michael Gove said 2,000 primary schools would be fast tracked to academy status. Four years later, the number of primary academies was 2,154 but 14,664 primary schools remain an LA school and fewer than 1,500 primary schools (only about 10%) were convertor academies.
Even if the rate of conversion can be maintained it will take another 12 years before even half the primary schools in England are academies and another 28 years before they are all academies.
Instead of a system where academies are the norm we have a fragmented and divided one with a little over half of secondary schools having become academies … but only an eighth of primary schools and only a fifth of all schools.
Nevertheless, have academies improved achievement and/or closed the gap?
The scale of the challenge to close the gap in achievement between the richest and the poorest pupils and enable them to overcome disadvantage and deprivation is shown below.
At every age, the gap in achievement is stark and it continues this way to age 16. Even more challenging, the gap widens as children progress from age 3 to age 11. It’s 23 percentile points at age 3 but 31 percentile points by age 11.
How does gap correlate with school performance? Disappointingly, Ofsted data – using Free School Meals as a proxy for socio-economic position – suggests the gap in achievement exists irrespective of the Ofsted grade.
The gap is around 22 percentile points in ‘Inadequate’ schools and, in fact, increases to 25 percentile points in ‘Outstanding’ schools.
So would turning every school into a good or outstanding school – perhaps via the academy programme – solve the problem? It appears not from Ofsted data and this unfortunate truth is confirmed by research carried out by Save the Children.
The blue line in the graph, above, describes the current achievement gap. The green line shows what would happen if every pupil on free school meals went to an outstanding school (allowing for adjustment for prior attainment, special educational needs etc). The achievement gap would close very slightly. The red line shows what would happen if every child, regardless of social background, went to an outstanding school. Even in this scenario, the achievement gap between the poorest and richest would only be cut by a fifth. And this is the best possible scenario.
In fact educationalists, like Professor Steve Strand from Oxford University, have found that non school factors are far more important in accounting for the variance in achievement between the poorest and the richest. Research suggests that non school factors can account for between 75% and more than 90% of the variance in achievement.
This doesn’t mean the role played by schools in closing the achievement gap should be ignored but it does beg the question whether policy is too obsessed with school governance and ownership – and academy conversion – and not enough with tackling the socio-economic differences that lead to large differences in educational achievement.
Nevertheless, perhaps academies raise overall achievement levels – even if they don’t close the achievement gap?
An analysis of secondary performance carried out by Henry Stewart from the Local Schools Network last year found that sponsored academies improved their results no faster than similar LA maintained schools.
A more recent analysis produces a more worrying result for primary performance.
It seems that when compared to similar schools, sponsored primary academies improved at a slower rate than LA maintained primary schools. In fact, a primary school below the KS2 80% benchmark is likely to perform better if it remains as a LA maintained school. And if the school is within 20% of the benchmark, conversion actually makes matters even worse!
This analysis ignores convertor academies but since schools that become convertor academies are already good or outstanding schools conversion makes little difference to their performance – although fall backwards in terms of Ofsted grade on conversion. So what can we conclude?
Academies don’t address the achievement gap and/or improve performance any better than their predecessor schools. Changing the legal status of a school and allowing it freedoms denied to LA schools (and that very few academies use anyway) does not seem to improve educational performance. We have good and not so good schools and academies.
So what was the point of the huge investment in academies? Perhaps Professor Stephen Ball was, and is, right and the rationale for academies was to privatise schools. The evidence that academies raise achievement simply isn’t there. Nor is the evidence that becoming and academy is popular with schools or the ‘norm’.
After four years of Michael Gove’s academy policy it is even more obvious that an education policy that can raise achievement and close the achievement gap across all types of school is needed.
Oh, and the opposition MP quoted earlier who wanted schools to focus on the deprived and disadvantage was Michael Gove (in a speech in November 2009). Whether by design or accident he didn’t focus education on the deprived and disadvantage. Either way it seems right he had to go.