The government has promised to accelerate academisation, but the impact on standards may be negligible,
Nicky Morgan’s big post-election theme is that schools are engines of social justice, so ‘academisation’ must be accelerated. The education secretary’s ambition, if not her logic, can hardly be faulted. The Education & Adoption Bill removes barriers that can delay the conversion process, including local objections, new powers will be given to regional school commissioners, experts will be brought in to run failing schools, and coasting schools will be targeted. What could possibly go wrong?
Setting aside the possible threat of judicial reviews (focused on the lack of local consultation), the first big challenge was always going to be in defining coasting schools. It was clearly risky putting the term ‘Coasting’ on the face of the Bill , without any agreement on what that actually meant . A consultation process , aimed at identifying consensus, was duly launched, but given how unsettled Heads were , Morgan was pressured into offering an early definition of ‘Coasting’ at the start of the Commons Committee stage. In the event, this was less to do with Ofsted ratings, and more to do with exam scores , over the last three years. The reaction to the proposals was mixed ,but it still left many Heads, of well rated schools, perplexed and worried, not least because they actually thought there would be a consultation process, rather than a ‘ fait accompli.’
The next issue is Morgan’s political positioning. In the last parliament she had adroitly distanced herself from the Goveian legacy. No longer. It’s not those who are opposed to academisation, on ideological grounds, that she needs to worry about. They can be managed. It is those leaders, almost certainly the majority, who absolutely get the merits of structural reforms, and that this is part of the reform equation, but who are also aware of what the evidence says on the other part. Leadership and raising the quality of classroom teaching matters the most in terms of improving outcomes. And it’s an area that received too little attention in the last administration, a problem that looks likely to continue. It must feel to them like groundhog day, and a lost opportunity. But, make no mistake, she needs their support.
Ministers’ faith in academies remains undiminished. Undoubtedly, there are many outstanding academies and multi-academy trusts (MATs), but if you look at the evidence it is pretty clear that giving a school academy status is no panacea for success.
Ofsted figures show that, of the schools rated as ‘inadequate’ just before becoming academies, 60% subsequently, in their next inspection, received either a ‘requires improvement’ or an ‘inadequate’ rating, while just 38% received an ‘outstanding’ or ‘good’ rating. This is hardly compelling evidence in support of the transformative effects of academy status.
A London School of Economics report suggested that while the first one hundred, well-resourced academies brought about a transformation in attitudes and standards, latterly the evidence is much less clear and nuanced. It is a fact that academies, because there are so many now and school spending is tight, are no longer accessing the significant extra funding and other support services they once did. It is also the case that there are as many failing academy trusts as there are local authorities (150 in each case nationally). Some trusts are even off-loading schools, either because they have been forced to, or because they realise they have expanded too quickly. At any given time, there are around fifteen MATs forbidden from expanding by DfE, due to concerns over quality.
Both the National Audit Office and all-party Education Select Committee found that although standards have risen, it is still too early to determine the impact of academies. The MPs specifically warned there is “no convincing evidence of the impact of academy status on attainment in primary schools”.
The overarching threat to academisation remains a shortage of capacity. With too many MATs underperforming, with some of the best wary about expanding, and with a shortage of school heads, it’s difficult to see from where these ‘experts’ will appear, to support these new schools. Transformative change will have to happen, it seems, with less capacity, funding and a reduced support network than was the case when the programme started. Now that’s a big ask.