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Mr Gove’s next schools test

Important questions about education reforms.

Reforms in the DfE since 2010 have been rapid and radical. But emerging failings at the country’s second biggest academy chain highlight that the academies programme is entering a new phase.

When it emerged in the early 2000s, the idea behind academy schools was straightforward. Schools that were failing, particularly in deprived communities, were to be rebranded. Extra money, reinvigorated leadership with freedom to manage, and more specialised curricula were all intended to improve performance and signal that educational failure was no longer being tolerated. Academy chains emerged, with the chain providing effective oversight for a number of constituent schools. Post-2010, the ‘academies’ brand remained but the focus shifted. Rather than being a response to failure, academies were to become the standard model for secondary education in particular. Thousands of schools – including highly successful ones – were incentivised to convert to academy status, while free schools were also encouraged to set up with similar freedoms and obligations to academies. Governors could choose to band together into new or existing academy chains, which led to the rapid expansion of some chains. Now we’re entering a new phase – where these reforms need to be embedded. Freedom is one thing but it needs to be accompanied by accountability. The main accountability mechanism for academies is meant to come in the form of competition. The idea is that schools that are failing don’t attract pupils, get less money from government as a result and then up their game or eventually close. In our July report, Making Public Service Markets Work, we suggested that there was scope to strengthen this system of accountability. As the system is currently set up, market-based accountability doesn’t always drive improvements. For example, it can be easy for schools to ‘coast’ in rural areas where the population is not big enough to support more than one school. It’s therefore heartening to see some signs that accountability is now being strengthened and academy chains are being held to account for their performance. Last week, E-Act, England’s second biggest academy chain, announced it would hand back control of ten schools after Ofsted inspections (of schools and not the overall chain) revealed severe concerns. But while the move suggests a welcome focus on ensuring chains are performing not just expanding, the announcement also raises questions which Mr Gove will need to answer in this parliamentary term. Mr Gove’s exam questions 1.Shouldn’t the performance of academy chains be made more transparent? The only correct answer is “yes”. But currently it’s very hard to know which chains are performing well from the published data. We’ve argued that transparency would help reassure the public that it was the effective academy chains that were growing – and not the underperformers. Mr Gove really needs to answer this question with some action. 2.When are chains big enough? A trickier question. On the one hand, the logic of the academies programme is that good chains take on more schools – not least so they can achieve economies of scale and provide (or commission) more effective support for head-teachers. But E-Act’s problems are partly a consequence of overly exuberant expansion and it clearly benefits no one if it is the ineffective providers who expand. Mr Gove needs to give a clear answer to which chains should expand and where, balancing some difficult factors. For example, is anyone getting worried about the fact that there are lots of (very well liked) Harris Academy sponsored schools in South London? Does this mean parents and children get less choice – and if so, do they care? 3.Is there any way to avoid the legal wrangling associated with contractual arrangements in other parts of government? This one is more of a practical test, calling for skill in its execution. The obligations and funding of every academy are set out in a funding agreement between the academy (or chain) and the Secretary of State. Though it may not be widely advertised, DfE in effect holds thousands of contracts with individual schools. E-Act handed back control of a number of schools voluntarily but it is certainly possible to conceive of a scenario in which they would prefer to hang onto as many schools as possible – for example because running lots of schools would give them economies of scale that would help them up their game more swiftly. DfE could not legally oblige any handover unless a school actually failed an Ofsted inspection. Or rather, they could not do so unless they were willing to go to court and attempt to activate the broad ‘step-in’ rights laid out in the funding agreement. DfE no doubt wants to avoid the litigious culture that has emerged in some other areas of government contracting (see rail franchising, for example) – but has it got the skill and tools to manage this while protecting the public interest and at a time when the size of the department is shrinking? 4.Should Ofsted inspect academy chains? A question that looks straightforward but has pitfalls for the unwary. The Chief Inspector of Schools, Sir Michael Wilshaw, would like to inspect chains. At the moment, DfE assesses chains – although not transparently. Inspection by Ofsted might give assessments a greater degree of transparency and impartiality – but we should not underestimate the differences of inspecting individual schools and chains. This parliament, Ofsted has already taken on another rather stretching task – inspecting children’s and early years services. Mission creep was a major factor leading to the demise of the Audit Commission, National Policing Improvement Agency and the NHS Modernisation Agency so Ofsted might want to be careful what they wish for. 5.What questions are Mr Gove, and his successors, prepared to answer on a regular basis? Sounds like a trick question, but it goes to the heart of the centralised British state. The diminished role of local authorities leaves the Department for Education far more accountable for the performance of individual schools than previously. As the remaining local education authority-controlled schools convert to academy status, it will be interesting to see the types of questions that the Secretary of State is being called on to answer about schools. Andrew Lansley’s 2010 health reforms were all aimed to distance the Secretary of State from the need to respond to specific incidences of failure about which he knew, or could do, little. But Mr Gove’s reforms appear to point in the opposite direction. This may prove quite politically painful in the long run, particularly if academies fail and need to close entirely. All these questions are important. And how well Mr Gove answers them could have a major impact on the academy programme’s success – and his own legacy.
Public figures
Michael Gove
Institute for Government

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