Steady but slow progress


DfE has  published  the latest figures for its flagship academy programme. The figures show slow but steady progress.  The first step for a local authority school to become an academy is for the governing body to ask the Secretary of State for an Academy Order. The figures for Order requests are:

Orders requested                                   Number

Up to 31 August 2010                                            139

Additional Orders up to 7 October                    50

Additional Orders up to 5 November               35

Additional Orders up to 3 December                41

Requests for Orders have stabilised at about 40 a month. Orders are being processed fairly promptly and approvals are keeping up with requests.

So that in the month up to 3 December, 41 Academy Orders were approved although many of these requests will have been lodged with the DfE in September and October.  However, it may be slightly worrying for Ministers that only 14 schools were converted to academy status in the period up to 3 December. This  suggests a big backlog of schools which have a Secretary of State approved Academy Order waiting to go the final hurdle to academy status. This final hurdle – the Academy Agreement – may  be proving problematic but  its not exactly clear where the problems lie.





Academies raise their game in a rebuke to critics


Academies appear to have upped their game this year, across the board, posting better than expected improvements in GCSE results.

The Harris Federation has seen a 10 percentage points increase across all their academies. Peckham Academy saw a 11% improvement, for instance, from 26% to 37% of pupils securing   A*-C grades, including English and Maths.   ARK Academies have seen a 13 percentage points increase – described by Schools Minister Nick Gibb as “a remarkable achievement and an example of what is possible with freedom, independence and relentless focus on raising standards for all.”  In one of Arks schools, Burlington Danes, in West London, 60% of pupils achieved five GCSE passes including maths and English, representing a 20% improvement on last year. Its St Albans Academy saw a 19% improvement. Even the ULT stable which has, relatively speaking, been under the kosh recently with a couple of poor Ofsted reports, posted an 8 point increase.  Paddington ULT Academy, for example, reported an impressive 28 point increase from 34 per cent to 62 per cent. All 17 of its schools have exceeded the threshold of at least 30% passing five GCSEs including maths and English.

The Government claims that, historically, Academy improvement rates have consistently outstripped the average national increase in the proportion of pupils achieving at least five GCSEs at A*-C including English and maths.  Nick Gibb reacting to the figures said “It is because of this success, together with our determination to tackle inequality in education, that we want to see academy freedoms used more widely to drive up standards with the heads of outstanding schools working in partnership with weaker schools to help the poorest children, along with allowing great new schools to be set up by teachers, parents and charities.” It is probably too early to say but champions of the Academy reforms already claim that now the genie of school choice is out of the bottle it is clearly thriving. Academies work. The irony is that much of the credit for this goes to the last Government and particularly Tony Blair and Andrew Adonis but you won’t hear many Labour politicians boasting about it, and silence from the leadership campaigners is particularly noticeable.  Ed Balls, the former Education Secretary, claims that the Coalitions Academy and free school reforms have nothing to do with the Labour scheme. He sees the new scheme as a reversion to GM schools  as they  are not exclusively targeting the disadvantaged and this will lead to a redirection of resources away from those most in need.


What is happening on VAT and other matters


Under academy status, the main funding will continue to be at the same level as the school would have received as a maintained school (ie the individual schools budget share). This would include funding to continue to purchase traded services from the authority or from other providers in the same way as at present. Additional funding would however be given to academies by the government to replace certain strategic and support services previously provided and funded by the authority. In essence, academies would also have the freedom to decide where and how to provide these services in the future.  On VAT for maintained schools (ie non-Academies) local authorities can recover input value added tax, so their costs will not rise when the VAT rate rises. Since maintained schools count as part of the local authority when spending local authority funds (section 49(5) of the School Standards and Framework Act 1998), they can recover VAT though it   is probable that the increase in the rate of VAT will not cause any significant pressure on schools’ budgets.  Initially, new academy buildings had been zero rated due to academies’ status as charities. However, this zero rating placed restrictions on the “business use” of the buildings i.e. the community use of the buildings for which a charge is made. The previous Government announced the removal of VAT constraints for current academies and those planned for the future, which enables the scope of these buildings’ use to be extended and future buildings can now be designed with community use in mind.  Academies, as independent schools (ie independent of the LA) must pay VAT, as they cannot use the local authority to reclaim VAT so have to fund the cost. However, the government provides a VAT grant to compensate for this change. The other main difference in funding are:

  • funding is provided on an academic year rather than financial year
  • the amount deducted from the authority for the support services may not be the same as provided to the academy by the government
  • redundancy and similar termination of employment costs would become the responsibility of school rather than the authority.

There are some unresolved aspects of accountabilities arising from academy charity status. Academies have exempt status meaning that they are subject to Charity law but are not regulated by the Charity Commission.



Civitas claims that Academies lack transparency -so we cant judge their success


 A new report from the centre right think tank Civitas claims that it is impossible to determine accurately whether or not Academies are making headway because they are not fully transparent about their results and there is a strong indication that many are opting for what might be described ,by some ,as soft qualifications.

 There are 200 Academy schools up and running with a further 100 planned for the next academic year. Mainly based in disadvantaged areas, with socially deprived intakes, Academies, normally with private sponsors, enjoy more autonomy and freedom over the curriculum than other local authority secondary schools.

 Although starting from a low base, the official view is that most, though not all, are improving their results quicker than equivalent state schools. The National Audit Office (NAO), for instance, reported in 2007, that GCSE performance is improving faster in Academies than in any other types of school, including those in similar circumstances.

 Elizabeth Reid, Chief Executive Specialist Schools and Academies Trust, said in September 2009 “The academies programme is making a real difference to the life chances of young people with exam results improving at twice the national rate”. The Secretary of State for Education said in September 2009 that the overall performance of academies has been very positive with the vast majority reporting improved results in 2009 and GCSE results are improving at over twice the national average. Schools Minister, Vernon Coaker MP, added, this month “Academies are working. For the 62 with results in both 2008 and 2009, provisional results show the increase in the number of pupils getting five A*-C grades including English and maths is twice the national average” Much of this apparent success has been put down to the autonomy of these schools and sponsors support.

 But not all is as it first seems, according the Civitas report ‘The Secret of Academies Success-Anastasia de Waal. The press release accompanying the report headlined ‘ ‘Academies’ ‘success’ a sham? Survey exposes dumbing down at flagship schools ‘pretty much sums up where the report is coming from. The study says that Academies exam performance success at GCSE has contributed significantly to both Labour and the Conservatives commitment to a rapid roll-out of the programme. In light of this commitment it is important, the study says, to be able to identify what it is about Academies which is generating these improved results. This is particularly so as the cost of establishing and running an Academy is considerably higher than that of a mainstream maintained school. But Civitas, claims that Academies lack transparency and we are largely kept in the dark about what Academies are actually doing. This is a damaging charge given the amount of taxpayers money invested in these schools, and against the backdrop of attempts to make our public institutions and schools in particular more transparent and accountable. Academies should surely be treated like other secondary schools in their information requirements. Unless, there is a compelling reason not to do so, which is not as things stand apparent. The report says that Academies are not subject to the transparency required by mainstream maintained schools. Unlike all other publicly funded schools, Academies are not currently subject to the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act (ironically, perhaps, the quango responsible for Academies –the SSAT, as private company, is not subject to the FOA either and its hard to get information from it too ).

 The report continues “A main consequence of Academies exemption from FOI is that we do not know how they are achieving their results at GCSE level. That is, we do not know which subjects their headline A*-C percentages have been achieved in. As Academies are not required by law to produce an account of their GCSE and equivalent results broken down by subject, they cannot be demanded’

 So the only results which are made available for Academies are their figures for the numbers of students achieving five or more A*-C GCSEs and equivalent, and five or more A*-C GCSEs including maths and English. We do not know from these headline figures which subjects, and indeed which type of qualifications, students in Academies are doing well in. There is a strong suspicion that many are using weak vocational qualifications to bolster their results. However the bottom line is this: knowing so little about what is happening in Academies, it is impossible to make a sound judgment on them, concludes Civitas. In the case of subject-level exam results this is not because the evidence is not there but because it has not been scrutinized. Whilst the government has expressly asked us to judge Academies on their results, we are being expressly prevented from doing so. Because the full data is not being released. The study criticized the number of schools choosing to withhold their results.

 Only 43 per cent of head teachers were willing to publish details. One head teacher told the think-tank that Academies should be able to keep test scores secret because publication would “identify the subjects that the academy has chosen not to prioritize” such as separate sciences and geography. The study added the “high performance of vocational entries was very noticeable” for those schools supplying exam information. Without vocational subjects, the headline performance at GCSE of a number of academies is considerably lower than it is when they are included,” the study concluded. The justifications for concealing important data from public scrutiny on Academies do not stand up to scrutiny.

It is odd that a Government so keen on championing evidence based policy and which, to its credit, has established a data rich environment in respect of schools should allow this to happen.

 Nobody pretends that Academies have anything but big challenges on their hands. They often have above average numbers of pupils on free school meals, with special education needs and with English as their second language. These can present huge challenges to which many, probably most, Academies have risen. But they should have the same information requirements as other state school and information should be available so that their performance and any improvements they make can be rated and authenticated. If they abide by different rules of disclosure it will only raise people’s suspicions that they have something to hide and fuel concerns over their accountability and indeed effectiveness. It also plays into the hands of critics who claim there is a two tiered system developing. Given that their exemption from FOA requirements is under review it seems possible that this exemption will be removed shortly. The study seems to suggest that most Academy heads would not mind too much if this happened.

I personally don’t think Academies have much to hide but if they do lets get it out in the open.

 Other state schools, after all, know how to play the league table game and some Academies may simply be learning the tricks of the trade from their less autonomous peers. And who can blame them?



 Will Academies concerns be addressed?


 It seems likely that the Tories will abolish the YPLA viewing it as an unnecessary quango. Many Academy sponsors have been worried about the YPLA seeing it as a Trojan horse, a means by which local authorities will increase their influence over Academies.

 Mike Butler, the chairman of the Independent Academies Association, wrote a letter to the then Schools Minister, Jim Knight, in which he set out the academies’ concern that, during the past couple of years: “It appears that with every consultation, each missive and even new legislation from the DCSF there comes further erosion of the independent status of academies”. He also commented that academies were established to, “turn around endemic educational underperformance in the most challenging of contexts in respect of socio-economic deprivation. To do so, it was recognised that new organisations had to be established that would be freed from the constraints of Local Authority control, from the old governance arrangements and from the vagaries of local bureaucracy”.

 Proposed legislation in the form of the Apprenticeships Skills Children and Learning Bill, completing its passage through Parliament, doesn’t in fact suggest that the YPLA will have any control over funding decisions, but academies are concerned that in practice it will, albeit through indirect routes.

They are worried for instance that local authorities will be able to influence what courses schools can offer under their “planning and commissioning” hat. Given that schools are funded according to the courses that they offer, local authorities will have the power to influence funding in this way. A key concern, therefore, is that local authorities, which are accountable to local councillors for the success of schools, are more likely to choose their own schools rather than independent academies for specific courses.

There is also a particular concern over Sixth Forms .Academy associations and federations have expressed concern that the expansion of an academy to include a new sixth form might initially appear uneconomic compared with the economies of scale of, for example, expanding a large FE college; indeed, this may already be happening. A recent example given in a Lords debate on the Bill (in Committee) from a London borough demonstrates the point well. It was hoped that an academy could be set up in the borough, but the local authority stated that opening an 11 to 18 academy to replace an 11 to 16 school did not fit with the local commissioning plan. In fact, the reason that the local authority refused permission was that it was worried that the success of the academy would undermine a post-16 college nearby, which would not be accepted locally. What is to stop new providers being thwarted in other areas when trying to open post-16 provision by local authorities tied up in local politics?

 The Government has responded to these concerns by saying that it intends, by the Report stage of the Bill, to outline what it plans to include in the Secretary of State’s policy guidance to the YPLA, in relation to academy arrangements. That outline will also set the key principles that should govern the way in which the YPLA operates in relation to academies. Ministers believe that Academies will be reassured by this as it will include “absolute respect for the autonomy of academies”.

We shall see.

 But with the YPLAs future not assured, at least under a Tory administration, this might all be rather academic.