The government seems seriously to be considering requiring all schools – and yes, that includes all primary schools – to become academies. A white paper setting out such a change may come later this month while, as Robin Alexander pointed out last month, the government has been arguing that ‘all schools should become academies or free schools’ for more than a year.
This would be the biggest change to institutional oversight in the primary sector since the 1988 Education Reform Act, at least. It would enable the Conservative party at long last to achieve what it set out to do less successfully 25 years ago through grant maintained schools: the bypassing of local authorities.
But is it going to herald change for the better, or is it a risky break with what has been a reasonably successful post-war primary education framework in favour of something much less democratic, potentially much more commercialised, arguably much more at risk of capture by vested interests, and certainly much less stable?
A research report I have written for the Cambridge Primary Review Trust, to be published this spring, considers the academies policy in detail. Here is what I found:
Evidence that academy status has improved primary schools since the first primary academies came into existence in 2010 is patchy-going-on-non-existent.
This is perhaps the most obvious finding. The headline is that there is little firm evidence that academy status in itself has improved primary schools. This doubt about evidence perhaps unsurprisingly includes that provided by the Department for Education, which last year was taken to task by the UK Statistics Authority for presenting official test data on sponsored academies without context and was asked by the cross-party Commons Education Select Committee to stop ‘exaggerating’ academy success.
The committee itself said that, as of January 2015:
We have sought but not found convincing evidence of the impact of academy status on attainment in primary schools.
Meanwhile, eight of the nine larger academy chains which have been inspected by Ofsted have come in for criticism.
It is true that the academies policy has been credited by the Commons Education Select Committee with injecting extra dynamism into state education. But the evidence for this seems very indirect.
There is little evidence that academies have used the autonomy which the government says is the centrepiece of the policy on the things that the government usually talks about in relation to it.
Although ministers have tended to argue that academies have greater freedoms over the curriculum, teachers’ pay and conditions and the length of the school day and term, independent studies have tended to find that such theoretical liberties are often not taken up.
For example, although academies can depart from national curriculum arrangements, the existence of an assessment regime which focuses on the national curriculum and against which schools’ futures are decided severely limits their scope for manoeuvre. Indeed, professionals surveying the current highly prescriptive stipulations of primary English assessments might greet suggestions of professional teaching freedom anywhere within the state-funded sector with a hollow laugh.
The academies policy, with the freedom it gives to multi-academy trusts to control what goes on within a chain of schools, provides no guarantee of meaningful autonomy of any kind for individual schools run by an overarching trust.
At the level of the individual school operating as one of several within a multi-academy trust (MAT), the very concept of school-centred autonomy may not exist as currently understood. Decision-making can be controlled by the MAT board, with the governors of each school having little or no power. If this as a trend continues and many or all schools enter into multi-academy trusts run in such a centralised way – and several leaders of large MATS have confirmed this is what happens in their organisations in the past year– it will be highly significant. Effectively it will bring to an end nearly 30 years of local management of schools, which, ironically, the Conservatives introduced in 1988.
To put it another way, we will have replaced a system whereby heads and governing bodies were given some freedom to manage their own affairs, but subject to oversight and influence by a locally democratic body, with one where a central body which is not subject to local democracy can run a group of schools in a top-down manner.
The academies policy does give meaningful autonomy to academy trusts, at the level of the trust, rather than to single schools within a MAT, in relation to some aspects of what they do. But the question then becomes whether such freedoms are appropriate. Such freedoms come in several categories.
Admissions. For example, the movement of many institutions from ‘community school’ status, run under the auspices of local authorities, to semi-independent academies makes each such academy trust its own admissions authority, rather than having admissions controlled by its local authority.
Yet why would a non-selective school need to control its own admissions? It seems difficult to identify any benefits, from the perspective of a system which sought to treat all local children fairly. However, the potential downsides have been powerfully voiced by, for example, the independent Pearson/RSA Academies Commission. It found that
Academies’ autonomy over admissions has attracted controversy and fuelled concerns that the growth of academies may entrench rather than mitigate social inequalities.
Governance. The academies scheme genuinely gives trusts great freedom in terms of how they set themselves up. At the top of academies’ governance structure sit ‘members’. Members have the ability to appoint and dismiss the other powerful figures within the trust’s governance structure, the trustees. Yet there can be as few as three members controlling multi-academy trusts, which in turn can run large numbers of schools. In some cases, these members seem to know each other well, sometimes as husband and wife. In others, a major figure involved in the day-to-day running of the MAT – say, the chief executive – is also a member sitting at the top of its governance structure.
This seems at odds with established good corporate governance practice and appears to create the clear risk that only a small number of people can be in effective control of large sums of public money and of important public institutions.
Finance. The large sums of taxpayers’ money now finding their way to some senior academy executives – and thus away from the classroom – combined with the payment of public funds to companies in which those governing academy trusts sometimes have an interest, raise additional concerns. Specifically, they highlight the clearly debatable freedoms which have been given to academy trusts over financial affairs.
As DfE’s Academies Financial Handbook puts it, the academies system hands trusts ‘wide discretion’ over the spending of public money, with auditors and the government then checking afterwards that this has been done correctly. In the non-academy sector, the local authority retains ultimate responsibility for spending. Readers will no doubt have views on which procedure is better, but financial goings-on in the academies sector at the very least give rise to concerns.
The system for deciding who runs academies is lacking in transparency and democracy
Decisions such as which organisation gets to take over a school under the new Regional Schools Commissioner (RSC) system are not taken in public; no detailed decision-making documents are available to taxpayers, parents, pupils or staff; there is no detail even on the rules by which such decisions are made, if they exist. Virtually no education stakeholders have any role in the decision-making process. The system is effectively controlled from Whitehall, as RSCs report ultimately to ministers. Though taking decisions with big implications for local communities, they are not subject to any local accountability.
The academies system has also introduced a controversial new feature on education’s landscape: the school takeover. This is when an outside academy trust can be brought in to take over the running of an institution, sometimes whether or not the school community – the parents, staff and pupils – want it.
Moving all schools to primary academy status would seem to herald a major increase in bureaucracy – and a field day for lawyers and auditors – as for thousands of institutions the legal structures on which schools are based are changed. This stands to take resources and the energy of school leaderships away from the core business of what goes on in classrooms.
It also stands to move England towards a system where the claimed greater autonomy of academies over, for example, the curriculum – on which the teaching profession has real expertise – often seems more rhetorical than real. But it would hand great power to academy trusts over areas such as admissions, where gameplaying in search of a ‘better’ intake seems a clear risk, and finance, where the misuse of public funds is an obvious worry.
It would move the management oversight of schools from governing bodies and local authorities rooted in their local communities to potentially very small groups of individuals, sometimes friends of each other, supervised essentially from Whitehall. It would allow the writing-out of most parents and taxpayers from meaningful influence and information in relation to major decisions on the future of state-funded schools, including a potential takeover by an outside organisation.
Faced with all of these considerations, one more is worth bearing in mind. As shown by the extensive evidence presented in the final report of the Cambridge Primary Review, considering as it did the system before primary academies:
Primary schools appear to be under intense pressure but are in good heart. They are highly valued by children and parents and in general are doing a good job … [They] may be the one point of stability and positive values in a world where everything else is changing and uncertain. (p 488)
That being so, and taking into account the less attractive aspects of what is being proposed, one question begs itself in relation to this possible change.
It consists of five words: why would you do it?
Warwick Mansell is a freelance journalist and author of ‘Education by Numbers: the tyranny of testing’ (Methuen, 2007). His CPRT research report on recent systemic reforms in the primary sector will be published in the spring.