The Charter school model , in the States, was used, along with Free schools in Sweden, as an inspiration for academy schools here, in England.
Charters are independent schools run by both for profit and not for profit companies that are independent of the local school boards and have a contract, or Charter , with the local authority. They are mainly small ,operate in disadvantaged areas and are quite popular with parents. Some individual schools and chains –such as KIPP-are very good indeed . Others , less so. I think its fair to say though that the Charter movement has never come very close to living up to all the initial hype. After several years of experimentation and the expenditure of billions of dollars, charter schools and their teachers proved, on the whole, to be not much more effective than traditional schools. Indeed, they haven’t ,overall , established clear blue water between themselves and the local board schools, in terms of student performance . There are a number of reasons as to why this might be the case.
They operate in extremely disadvantaged areas, and are often tasked with transformung sink schools, which the local district has previously been unable to do. . Generally they are small with less per capita funding than other district schools, (although KIPP tends to spend more per pupil than other district schools) Initially at least, proper due diligence, too often, wasnt undertaken before the contracts were signed. But the point is that the variability in their historical performance has been a long running issue , even for their supporters. (not just Republicans, by the way). And the movements reputation has suffered accordingly.
Arguably, the variable performance of academies, here, is in danger of becoming an issue too.
Here 63 % of all Secondary schools are now academies and around 17% of Primaries. They are clearly facing big challenges .Sponsored academies – of which there are now 1,100 – were intended to improve standards, particularly for the poorest students.
And, sponsored academies, generally, have improved faster than other schools, albeit from a lower base. Many, though still a minority, belong to chains – groups led by an educational charity, a university or a successful school. Sutton Trust analysis in July found that disadvantaged pupils in nine of 31 chains studied had better results than the average for all schools, while improvements in 18 chains were faster than average. Some well-known chains, like Harris and Ark, each with 27 academies, do particularly well. But the study also confirmed that the DFE is right to be concerned that other chains, rather too many, that had grown very rapidly since 2010, are under- performing.
The key challenge for academies has always been to improve the performance of the most disadvantaged pupils , those on free school meals, and to narrow the attainment gap between them and their peers . But too many are failing to perform better than maintained schools ,with similar intakes, despite having greater freedoms.
The DfE capped 14 academy chains in March, including the 77-school Academies Enterprise Trust. They must focus on improving their existing schools before being allowed further expansion. Ministers also forced another academy chain, E-Act, to transfer 10 of its 34 schools to other sponsors.It is not yet a crisis but there are concerns developing about the long tail of underachievers in the academies family,
In terms of academies overall performance, the statement from the recent IOE report to the Education Select Committee on Accountability, in September, seems fair:
‘’The benefits and impact of academies and academy sponsorship overall remain contested, but there is a strong argument that academy sponsors are mostly working to address underperformance in schools that face real challenges and where the previous Local Authority model has not proved effective’
There is strong evidence from Robert Hill, among others , to show that being part of a formal academy chain can have a significant impact on a schools performance, and chains, comprising three or more academies, are improving faster than other academies. However, and this is important the Sutton Trust found in its report Chain Effects of July 2014 that ‘There is very significant variation in outcomes for disadvantaged pupils, both between and within chains; and chains differ significantly in attainment against different measures’. And ‘When analysed against a range of Government indicators on attainment, a majority of the chains analysed still underperform the mainstream average on attainment for their disadvantaged pupils. While some of those below the average are continuing to improve, others are not’
And, remember as we have pointed out most academies are not part of a chain.
The biggest threat to the future academies is clear. Given they were created to improve the performance of mainly disadvantaged pupils and to narrow the attainment gap, if they fail to deliver this, or if only a small group of elite academy chains are delivering this over time, then it would be rash to assume that their future is assured. Make no mistake, politicians made academies so they can unmake them. We know that some academy chains are not performing as well as maintained schools. Not only is this a threat to the respective chains’ existence, it threatens the whole academies enterprise. We know that structures can be changed, over the short term.
Politicians probably don’t have the appetite for more structural reforms and want to focus now on the curriculum, assessment the quality of teaching and what happens in the classroom. But, the academies enterprise must take the issues of quality control along with sound governance, much more seriously ,over the short and medium term, in order to secure their future,.Its not yet a crisis, but there are potential dangers forming up on the near horizon.