By Terry Wrigley
The Academies Commission was set up by the Pearson Group and the RSA. It was widely expected to be a whitewash. It was explicitly set up not to question the academies programme but to help them work better.
Surprisingly its report has revealed very serious problems of achievement, school admissions, school improvement, how sponsors are chosen, financial irregularities, and poor management. It condemns the casual attitude of the Coalition Government towards academies, which are clearly a law unto themselves.
A lot of the proposals are an attempt to substitute for the work which local education authorities used to carry out. They will have some effect but limited, given the academies’ legal autonomy.
Not raising attainment
The Commission chose to ignore the strongest evidence that academies were not improving achievement (see www.changingschools.org.uk, under Research) but even so it concluded that ‘they have not performed markedly better than similar schools. Academisation alone does not guarantee improvement.’ It points out that Ofsted has judged almost half of sponsored academies as inadequate or ‘requiring improvement’ (formerly ‘satisfactory’). It accepts that a lot of the apparent improvement in results came about by reducing the number of disadvantaged pupils and by using easier alternatives to GCSE. Some sponsored academies have shown ‘stunning success, but this is not common.’
The report says a lot of anger was expressed about the admissions procedure, in academies and some other types of school which control their own admissions. Already in 2010 a quarter of schools decided independently which pupils they would allow in. Less educated parents find it hard to navigate the system and almost impossible to appeal against. Many academies were dodging the rules, by using complicated forms or telling parents their ‘child would not be happy here’. Canary Wharf College, a ‘free school’ in a Borough where half the children receive free meals, allowed in just one child with a free meal entitlement. It is far too easy for academies to expel pupils or shunt them (with their attached data) into ‘alternative provision’. Academies have made matters worse in a country which already had one of the most segregated school systems, with richer and poorer children being taught in different schools.
Government turning a blind eye to academy failure
Serious questions are raised about quality control and school improvement: basically that governors are not up to the job or even aware of their duties, and a casual attitude from the government in choosing sponsors. The report condemns the government’s minimal ‘fit and proper person’ check on potential sponsors, and its slowness in dealing with problems. The Department for Education has ‘red-rated’ 40 academies, and the Office of the School Commission was monitoring 166, but few sponsors have been removed. Even sponsors running large chains of academies are not being properly monitored. ‘The DfE should operate hard powers in relation to failure.’
Finances kept secret
The Government has been equally slack in supervising how academies use public money. Taxpayers’ money is being siphoned off to pay huge salaries to academy heads and chief executives. Finances are being kept secret, and academies seem to be getting more than their fair share of funds. According to the Commission, the government have over-used the argument of ‘commercial confidentiality’ to hide the truth from the public, and academy finances are buried by ‘consolidating’ them into the Department for Education’s accounts.
Out of touch with parents
The report builds up a picture of academies being out of touch with parents and local communities. It shows that the system doesn’t help schools to improve. Thriving schools are failing to help those that are struggling. The emphasis on ‘autonomy’ and ‘freedom’ has been at the cost of co-operation and serving the community.
Local authorities as ‘champions’ and ‘guardians’
The report makes many recommendations to try to sort out the mess. Many of these are attempts to substitute for what local councils used to do before academies were introduced. Michael Gove’s policies are leading to the extinction of democratically elected local authorities, but the Commission wants them to have important new roles. They should be involved in planning school places, choosing who is allowed to run local schools, and blowing the whistle when things go wrong. They should be ‘champions’ and ‘guardians’ of the needs and interests of families in their area. This is a crucial step and we should demand that it is carried out. The difficulty will be that, now that Government cuts and academisation has shrunk local authorities, they might no longer have the expertise.
New organisations for CPD?
A contradictory proposal, which will also reduce local authority capacity to support schools, is that they should no longer offer ‘school improvement services’, presumably including CPD. These should be taken over by ‘school-led’ partnerships with ‘public, private or third sector’ partners. This is a further privatisation, as it is difficult to see how schools will group together to build such partnerships. It parallels the move the government made to have health boards run by the GPs, which leads to private takeovers.
No substitute for local democracy
The Commission clearly intend more collaboration in local areas, but all of this depends on academies being willing. It is hard to imagine how these independent academies can collaborate well with neighbouring schools, and through the different stages of education with nurseries and colleges and adult education, as well as other council services for children and families. Only well-run local authorities can do that. We should be aiming to strengthen public management and make it more democratic, with scope for initiative, not just patching up an anarchic arrangement.
Hands off primary schools
A key recommendation is that the government should stop pressurising struggling primary schools to become academies, and instead encourage them to ‘federate’ with other local schools.
Self-evaluation, not Ofsted
Finally, questions are raised about England’s tough system of school surveillance, including Ofsted. The Commission expressed concern that it leads to ‘basic adequacy’ rather than ‘unleashing greatness’, and makes schools afraid of taking risks and introducing changes to make learning more interesting. The Commission proposes that, if schools can show they are working together well on self-evaluation and with the support of ‘peer review’, Ofsted inspectors should stay away!
See www.changingschools.org.uk under Research for further details.