The Academies Commission – a Turning Point?

Sir Humphrey Appelby once advised Jim Hacker to “get the difficult bit over in the title.” He would have been delighted to see how faithfully the Academies Commission has followed his advice. Their report is called “Unleashing Greatness”. The brief the commission was given required them to look at the implications of a situation where most schools are academies. They were not meant to consider whether or not this would be a good idea.

Hence the title – there at least the commission stuck to their brief and promoted the line that setting schools free is the road to excellence. It then goes on to document is impressive detail what are the very real risks of both the current academies programme and any further extension of it. To cover all the issues in one short article is impossible so this post will address some of the highlights with more detail to come in the future.

The one area where some real enthusiasm comes across is when the report is talking about school collaboration as the driver for school improvement. So much so that any other contributors are written out of the picture. Other than the National College, there is no apparent role for higher education and local authorities are told to get rid of what remains of their school improvement services.

Unfortunately, they have to recognise that even here many academies have not lived up to the commitment in their funding agreements to support less successful schools. There are many valuable initiatives which involve schools supporting each other in a range of ways – though interestingly the examples given clearly didn’t require academy status in order to be successful. To develop this approach into a national system, the commission proposes a whole new structure of Excellence Networks. The market it seems is not going to deliver even here.

In other areas, the criticism of what is emerging is much blunter. It has to recognise that the evidence for an academy effect on results is just not there. More seriously still are the damaging effects of a free for all in admissions. In the Commission’s words

The UK education system is among the most socially segregated of OECD countries (OECD, 2010). This is manifested in socially advantaged pupils being concentrated in the best schools (see for example, Francis, 2011; Clifton and Cook, 2012) with more teachers (see for example, Schleicher, 2012b; Husbands, 2012), and disadvantaged children are over-represented in poorer quality schools.”

It then goes on to quote the evidence of Martin Narey of Barnado’s who said that “We are seeing impenetrable clusters of privilege forming around the most popular schools. Allowing such practice to persist – and almost certainly expand as increasing numbers of schools take control of their own admissions – will only sustain the achievement gap in education and undermine the prospects of the most disadvantaged and vulnerable children.”

The report then goes on to express a whole series of other concerns:

why has there been so little debate about ‘the extent to which it makes sense for the curriculum offer a young person experiences to be entirely dependent on the school they attend’.

The Commission received reports of breakdowns of local behaviour and attendance partnerships, with some academies reportedly refusing to cooperate with other local schools in relation to hard-to-place and excluded pupils, despite the legal requirements.

No serious evidence has been presented that operating a local market in terms of school places will provide places where they are needed at the times they are needed.

CfBT notes that, although most of the research in this area has been carried out in the United States in a somewhat different institutional environment, the general conclusion has been that ‘a prevailing tendency in such organisations is for them to be run in the interests of their senior staff’

Indeed, the Commissioners are concerned that the apparent cultural status quo for governing bodies will mean that they are not fit for purpose in the future.

‘In any other aspect of public life, contracts for the operation of public services are subject to open tender and once in operation are governed by procurement frameworks. Why not in education?

‘…where schools are not maintained by the local authority, local people will not be able to hold schools to account for their performance through locally elected councillors. More thought is needed about how the public can hold academy schools to account with the loss of democratic accountability.’

This report could represent a real turning point in the debate. It clearly rejects the unfettered market model being promoted by the government in favour of a system that is planned and which has properly robust systems of governance and accountability. In a future post I will hope to look at some of the specific proposals the commission makes for addressing the real problems it has identified.