Academies – more reasons why they’re not the answer

The issue of how successful are academies has come to the fore yet again in a number of ways. Potentially most significant could be the Select Committee’s decision to carry out an investigation into the academies programme as a whole. Given that the committee has not been slow to criticise the DfE in the past, this is an intriguing prospect. The call for evidence is out with a deadline of 19th December. Details are at: http://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/commons-select/education-committee/news/academies-and-free-schools/

Meanwhile a whole batch of academies have received warning notices telling them that their performance is not good enough. Evidence at least that academy status is not the infallible magic bullet that some would have us believe. But really it’s more interesting for what it tells us about the DfE’s approach to school improvement. This seems to amount to just writing to schools telling them that they need to do better or else. The “else” seems to be ultimately changing their sponsor!

What is missing is any attempt to analyse the issues faced by the school, any suggestion that DfE might analyse action plans, contribute any practical support or even offer any continuing monitoring – all things that might help the school find its way forward. As a former head of school improvement, I know that you help a school to improve by getting involved, reviewing plans, making suggestions and monitoring progress very regularly. What you don’t do is yell through a megaphone from a distance and then leave the school alone to sink or swim.

This process also highlighted some fascinating sponsors. Two of the three Grace academies get warning letters. Their sponsor is Lord Edmiston, motor trade millionaire, Tory donor and evangelical Christian. His schools – he chairs all 3 governing bodies – were also amongst those revealed as having new-style section 28 provisions.

Then there’s the Barnfield College Trust which is under investigation by the DfE and the Skills Funding Agency on a range of issues. And the Alec Reed Academy described as “a plaything of Tory donor and employment agency millionaire Alec Reed, whose governing body is stuffed with his family and employees” and where unions had to take industrial action to get recognition.

And above all there’s AET getting 7 warning letters. This the largest academy chain and has been hit this year both by financial scandal and evidence of poor educational standards across the board, not just in these seven schools. It’s interesting to imagine what Michael Gove would say about a Labour local authority with that sort of record!

Then just today, there’s an NFER report claiming to compare standards in academies and non-academies. The Guardian initially presented this as evidence of academies doing better than non-academies but what it really shows is that academies make more use of vocational equivalents – something the DfE describes as “artificially inflating” results. Henry Stewart does his usual efficient job in analysing this report at http://www.localschoolsnetwork.org.uk/2013/11/again-academies-do-no-better-than-non-academies/

What is interesting in the NFER document though is how far groupthink about academies has penetrated. So, they say that “This (academy) status takes much of the decision making of how a school operates away from the local authority and gives it to the schools themselves. Schools have the ability to make more of the decisions about how their financial resources are spent, who to hire and what to study within the curriculum.” The reality of course is that school have made decisions on spending and hiring ever since 1988 and its only central government that has ever tried to control the curriculum.

When an organisation like NFER can’t stop itself from subliminally following a crude and inaccurate political line like this, then the quality of debate and research has truly been comprehensively debased.

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