Too early to tell if academies are successful
More transparency needed
Laura McInerney, Editor of Schools Week, will feel vindicated by the findings of a Select Committee report on Academies, which states that the government needs to be much more open about the way it runs academies and free schools. McInerney has been waging a long running personal campaign, using the Freedom of Information Act , (with only limited success), to force greater transparency from the DFE over the detail of how the academies and free schools programme is being run and funded and to find out more, for example, about how and why respective Free school bids are successful, or not, as the case may be.(She is not actually against the academies and Free schools policy, by the way)
Crucially, the MPs said that the Department of Education must become more open about how academies are run, and give Ofsted full powers to inspect academy chains
The Select Committee report said:
‘There is a complex relationship between attainment, autonomy, collaboration and accountability. Current evidence does not allow us to draw conclusions on whether academies in themselves are a positive force for change. This is partly a matter of timing but more information is needed on the performance of individual academy chains. Most academy freedoms are in fact available to all schools and we recommend that curriculum freedoms are also extended to maintained schools.
‘We welcome the appointment of the regional schools commissioners as a step towards making oversight more local again, but any lasting solution will need to be more local still and develop effective working with local authorities. Local authorities cannot embrace their new role as champions of local children, families and employers, rather than of school themselves, without codification of their roles and responsibilities in relation to academies.
‘The Education Funding Agency must enhance the transparency and accountability of its monitoring of academy funding agreements. Together with the RSCs, it must deal effectively with parental complaints about academies. We also recommend that its regulatory and funding roles should be split in order to restore public confidence.
‘Our report examines concerns regarding the oversight of sponsors and chains. The DfE should publish data on the performance of individual schools and trusts. It should set out the process and criteria by which sponsors are authorised and matched with schools, as well as the process and criteria for reviewing and renewing funding agreements. The length of these agreements should also be reviewed, with a view to reducing the model agreement to five years. Conflicts of interest in trusts are a real issue and the DfE should take further steps to strengthen governance in trusts.
‘The DfE should be more open and transparent about the accountability and monitoring system for chains and the criteria used to pause their expansion. It should create a mechanism for schools to be able to leave academy chains where appropriate, and it should publish a protocol for dealing with the failure of a large chains and for how individual schools will be treated when a chain can no longer run them. Ofsted should be given the power to inspect academy chains.
‘There is at present no convincing evidence of the impact of academy status on attainment in primary schools. The DfE should commission such research as a matter of urgency. The primary sector benefits more from collaborative structures, whether with or without academy status. Maintained schools in federations should be eligible for funding to assist collaboration through the Primary Chains Grant.
‘We agree with Ofsted that it is too early to draw conclusions on the quality of education provided by free schools or their broader system impact. The DfE should make clear how the competition for free school funding is decided and the relative weight it gives to each of innovation, basic need, deprivation and parental demand. The DfE should ensure that local authorities are informed of any proposal to open a free school in their area. It should also collect statistical information on the intake of free schools and monitor the effect of newly created schools on the intake and attainment of neighbouring schools.
‘Academisation is not always successful nor is it the only proven alternative for a struggling school. Both academies and state maintained schools have a role to play in system-wide improvement by looking outwards and accepting challenge in order to ensure high quality education for all children. Of the 21,500 state-funded schools in England, 17,300 are maintained schools and 4,200 are academies. The Government should spell out its vision for the future of schools in England, including the structures and underpinning principles that will be in place in the next five to ten years. Any future government will have to examine whether the existing dual system of oversight and intervention is beneficial.
The DfE needs to be far more open about the implementation of the academies programme: it has much to gain from transparency and clarity over its processes. The conversion of schools to academy status has been exceptionally fast by international standards. We recommend that the DfE review the lessons of the wholesale conversion of the secondary sector to inform any future expansion’
Committee chairman Graham Stuart told Schools Week: “Schools are doing better than four years ago when the programme was introduced but there’s a number of changes we think can be made.
“There needs to be greater scrutiny of the sponsors and the financial decisions. Regional Schools Commissioners need to be increased in number.
“The role of local authorities needs to be reappraised and written down so they know what is expected of them and what their role is in the system.”
Mr Stuart added: “There has been progress although it’s still too early to know how much the academies programme has helped raise standards. It takes a long time for a child to go through the reformed school system.”
Professor Becky Francis, who advised the committee, and is Professor of Education and Social Justice, King’s College London, noted that the evidence on the success of academies is mixed.
“We see both examples of striking success, but also of significant failure – this was also the finding of research on the success or otherwise of academy chains”.
She noted, however, that while the report emphasises greater rigour and transparency there is also an “impetus for a renewed focus on the quality of teaching practice in all schools, in contrast to the preoccupation with structures in our education system”
A recent Public Accounts Committee report (2013) was critical also of the lack of transparency in relation to Academies, specifically in relation to funding. The report said:
‘The Department has a direct responsibility to ensure that taxpayers’ funds are used wisely at academies. The Department has incurred significant costs from the complex and inefficient system it has used for funding the Academies Programme and its oversight of academies has had to play catch-up with the rapid growth in academy numbers. The Department and its funding agency need to increase their grip on the risks to public money as more and more schools become Academies.’
And ‘ To give Parliament and the public confidence that the Programme is being properly run in the interests of taxpayers, the Department must improve the efficiency of its funding mechanisms and stop the growth in other costs.’
What to make of this? First evidence on the success of academies is mixed and it will take time before we have enough evidence to draw firm conclusions. What this report doesn’t say, by the way, is that academies and free schools under the coalition have failed.
What it does say though is that the government, for reasons best known to it, is very secretive when it comes to the detail on academies and free schools and the investment made in them. Remember its not the governments money that’s being invested. Its taxpayers money, and taxpayers have a right to know how their money is being spent in education, particularly as increasing efficiency productivity and outcomes in education are goals . And civil servants in these austere times are supposed to be getting more bangs for taxpayers bucks. As the report puts it “the DfE has much to gain from transparency and clarity,” if only it would stop “seeing every request for information as an attack on the policy.”
The DFE really needs to become more objective in this important policy area-after all aren’t we supposed to now be in an era of evidence led policy and practice?
New Schools Network Response to Committee report
The National Audit Office has this month issued an “adverse opinion” on the accounts of the Department for Education (DfE), saying they are “not true and fair”.The public spending watchdog says the level of error in the department’s financial statements is “pervasive”.Since 2012-13, the DfE has consolidated the accounts of all academies with its own and that of its executive agencies.As academies have a different reporting period, this has made it hard to make sense of the figures, the NAO says.