Does the Academies Commission provide a new agenda for schools?

The Academies Commission contains many powerful criticisms of how the DfE is managing the programme. It identifies ways in which Academies are not making the kind of difference that was expected by the government. Moreover it identifies real risks, ranging from socio-economic segregation to financial mismanagement which no one is seriously addressing.

The Commission makes a lot of recommendations. It was of course constrained by its brief to consider how a system in which most schools are academies would work. So a lot of the recommendations  amount to complicated ways of mitigating problems which wouldn’t have been problems if academies didn’t exist. Nevertheless it’s important to consider how far they could form the basis of a new settlement.

The Commission is very concerned about the lack of a proper framework for school improvement. It’s committed in principle to school improvement being driven by schools supporting schools. As a principle, this is fine but as the Commission found it’s not working consistently.

It then really struggles to find practical ways of making it happen. It points to a number of successful examples of how collaboration is indeed raising standards – quite a few of which have nothing to do with academy status. To begin with it takes refuge in some pretty empty rhetoric such as:

“Build a more powerful national vision for change.

Strengthen professional ownership of accountability.

Capture the power of collaboration for system change.”

In practical terms though, it comes down to using Ofsted as a lever, encouraging primary federations (whether academies or not) and setting up new bodies called Excellence Networks. There are already a great many ways in which outstanding schools and leaders can contribute to improvement. What is missing is a duty to participate and anyone brokering collaboration so that no school opts out or is left out.

When it comes to issues of system planning and governance, the Commission is much more robust. In a number of areas it says that the systems for all kinds of school should be the same, for example on the role of the Adjudicator and of the Local Government Ombudsman. It proposes a pivotal role for local authorities in planning, commissioning and monitoring. It can’t always, however, bring itself to see the logic of using established local systems. So, for example, it wants a new quango to run admissions appeals rather than use existing local systems that work perfectly well for maintained schools.

On Admissions though there is a real first. It wants schools to publish socio-economic data of both applicants and acceptances and then wants the Adjudicator to analyse the data so as to identify growing risks of social segregation. To my knowledge this is the first time that anyone has set as the aim of the Admission process preventing this kind of segregation. Normally the aim is just some vague notion of fairness – looking at what the admission process actually delivers is a huge step forward and is something that must not be lost sight of.

The Commission is clear that local authorities should take the lead in planning and commissioning school places. It wants local authorities to monitor the quality of schools’ work and to have the responsibility of proposing to the DfE a change of sponsor or other governance arrangements where it thinks it necessary. Both of these would represent another real change of direction. What is perhaps most interesting is that these ideas clearly come not just from local authorities but from some of the clearer thinkers in the Academy sector such as Jon Coles of ULT.

The Commission worries about the role and capacity of the Education Funding Agency and about academy governors. Sadly here the recommendations don’t go far beyond hoping they can do better. It is obliged to assume that academies can be made to work, so somehow governors have to be able to cope. The DfE must “increase understanding of the pivotal role of governors in an academised system”. So that will be all right then! Or perhaps not?

Logic would suggest that if local authorities are to monitor educational quality, they should also be monitoring the quality of governance and of financial management. It has to be clear that the EFA will never be able to adequately ensure the quality of financial management unless it establishes a network of local offices. Why not use the network of local authority finance departments that already exists?

The process of funding academies is not much discussed in the report. The current arrangements are tangled in the extreme:

DfE distributes the schools budget to local authorities

  • Local Authorities:    on the advice of Schools Forums, set a local funding formula

calculate budget shares for maintained schools.

provide details of the formula to the EFA

  • The EFA then calculates academy budgets using that local data.

So the EFA has to use all 150 local funding formulae. In a wholly academised system it would have to calculate 24,000 individual school budgets. Can anyone be surprised that this is a mess and one which can only get worse? It can only be managed by the imposition of crude national formulae (as has been done with LACSEG) which pay no attention to any local circumstances.

Overall though, there is a powerful agenda for change in this report. It may not be perfect but it represents a real attempt to square school autonomy with a proper level of planning, support and accountability. The Gove regime is clearly untenable in the long run. This report represents an important, if incomplete, first step in redesigning both what the proper scope of school autonomy should be and what local and national arrangements are needed to ensure quality, efficiency and equity.