Last week, the Sutton Trust, a charity focused on improving social mobility through education, released a report on the performance of academy chains operating across England and Wales. Many academies are standalone schools but over a third of the UK’s 4,000-plus academies are now run by chains overseeing three or more academy schools. The report found, to no one’s real surprise, that some academy chains are very good, some are okay, and some are poor.
Intriguingly, however, nearly half (44%) of academies would be classified as ‘coasting’ according to the Department for Education’s (DFE) recently released definition, which promises to give the secretary of state the right to intervene where schools have not shown significant improvement over three years.
The report is to be welcomed. It provides much-needed transparency on chain performance that government has so far failed to provide, including through interesting league tables (note that chains in each category are in alphabetical order rather than ranked by performance). It also highlights the need for DfE to answer questions about the governance and accountability regime surrounding chains.
For me, it raises five questions DfE should be grappling with:
1. Are academy chains appropriately accountable for the performance of schools they oversee?
DfE has taken some steps towards assessing chain performance, both through private analysis within the department and by allowing Ofsted to inspect several schools within individual chains at roughly the same time. However, it has stopped short of allowing Ofsted to make judgements on chains’ adequacy. It is also not entirely clear how DfE could reward or sanction chains depending on their performance. The theory behind the academies programme is that good chains expand, so the more effective chains will pick up more schools and the less effective ones will divest schools. However, in practice, it’s all a bit more complicated. Some chains are not keen to expand too much, knowing that it might affect their performance or ethos, for example. And DfE may not yet feel comfortable taking a more punitive approach to failing chains, given it needs them to expand if they are to meet targets around conversions to academy status. Then there is the question of what amounts to a sanction. Is it really a sanction to let ineffective chains hand back the most difficult to run (and presumably most expensive) schools?
2. Whose job is it to address coasting and under-performance?
A tricky one, again. The theory is that chains support improvements. But many chains are small, and others clearly aren’t that successful in raising standards. The Sutton Trust argue there needs to be greater use of school improvement services and believes the department should play a role in spreading best practice in school improvement. Presumably, government also has a role in ensuring that coasting and failing schools access the right support.
3. How will the system react to a firmer government hand?
If DfE starts holding chains to account, there is clearly a risk that chains – who do not make profit – might feel hard done by. Traditionally, sticks need to be accompanied by carrots – and it will be interesting to see how chains start to behave if the regime tightens up. One risk is that even good chains decide that taking on very challenging schools is unlikely to be worth the trouble. Another risk is that schools stop innovating, knowing that trying new things out will lead to sanctions from DfE if experiments fail. And a third possibility is that chains start exerting pressure to be allowed profit.
4. Who can legally intervene and when?
DfE will want to avoid the legal wrangling associated with contractual arrangements in other parts of government. The obligations and funding of every academy are set out in a funding agreement between the academy (or chain) and the Secretary of State. So, though it may not be widely advertised, DfE in effect holds thousands of contracts with individual schools. My understanding is that under most existing agreements DfE has rather limited powers to regain control of schools (or indeed dictate any action) unless they have 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.
5. Can our school system handle transparency regarding chain performance?
Transparency of chain performance needs to improve – which is why the Sutton Trust’s work is so valuable. However, there are risks of transparency that need to be managed. In particular, rankings of chains might lead parents to oppose takeovers of schools by all but the top academy chains. If they do, this could soon lead to consolidation and only a few large chains operating in some areas of the country. While we are some way off having dominant chains in the country as a whole, there is a question of whether this might lead to: parents in some areas having few choices; less diversity in school management practices; and, higher risks should an individual provider start to perform poorly or even fail financially.
It is important that all these questions are worked through this parliament. Failure to act is likely to see more children are let down by “under-performing” or “coasting” academies and decreased public confidence in DfE’s programme to convert the minority of secondary schools still under local authority control to academy status.