Dave Lister on why the Academy project is floundering
The Tories’ reverses in this year’s general election spelt an end to their plans for wholesale academisation, at least for the time being. Nevertheless, measures remain on the statute book to allow for further academisation, particularly for schools that fail their Ofsted inspection. However, there is a problem for the Government in that chains or multi-academy trusts (MATs) do not necessarily want to take over schools that are failing academically, financially or both.
Looking further into the chains themselves a varied picture emerges. Some MATs
are high performing, like Harris and ARK, in terms of the Government’s criteria for achievement, but equally there are a significant number that are poor or very poor. The most recent example is the Wakefield City Academy Trust, which has foundered, announcing on 8th September that it was seeking alternative sponsors to run its 21 schools. The trust admitted that it did not have “the capacity to facilitate the rapid improvement our academies need and our students deserve”.
Yet not long ago the Government was praising it as “a potential flag-bearer for its academies …across the north of England”. Another example is E-ACT which had ten schools taken away from it because of poor performance. Further, in January 2017 School Week reported that as many as 57 sponsors had been placed on the Government’s ‘pause list’ and instructed not to take over any new schools. At secondary level two thirds of chains are performing below national averages at Progress 8, the relatively new way of assessing progress across a range of GCSE subjects and 51% are performing significantly below national averages. The House of Commons Select Committee reported last February that there is no real evidence that academies perform better than maintained schools. Yet that is what the duffers in the DfE continue to assert.
Why are a significant number of academies failing to deliver? The answer surely lies in the Government’s desperation to academise as widely and as quickly as possible. This has led it to encourage academy chains to expand quicker than they have the capacity to do, sometimes over wide geographical areas. It has also accepted bids from potential academy sponsors with little or no due diligence. In the words of Professor Hutchings: “The record of the Government in accepting new sponsors…has been that most have been accepted. There does not seem to have been a very vigorous vetting process…”
There are other issues too, such as a lack of accountability. Although Local Authority (LA) services have been cut, LAs still keep a watchful eye on their maintained schools. However academies and academy chains are ultimately responsible to one person alone – the Secretary of State. Powers are delegated to eight Regional Schools Commissioners to deal with academies in their area but they only have small teams and as the number of academies grows, their ability to monitor and intervene reduces. This has prompted suggestions that the Government will end up creating a new middle tier to take on this responsibility. I have news for them: this tier already exists in the form of LAs.
There are also concerns about how chains are run. Many CEOs of MATs are on large salaries. Dan Moynihan of Harris was on £420,000 in 2015-16 and most of them earn more than the Prime Minister, even those just running one primary school. There have been huge salary hikes for some CEOs over the past year – up to 141% in one extreme case. Yet the staff they employ have had their salaries pegged at 1% over the last seven years which represents a real term pay cut at the same time as they have faced increasing workload pressures.
We also need to consider questionable (even if legal) practices by some chains. There are cases of schools purchasing services provided by their sponsor and of staff being employed who are closely related to senior figures in the chain. Even though these practices may be totally above board, they are clearly open to abuse in a situation in which academies receive far less scrutiny than maintained schools.
How then can we expect an incoming Labour Government to address these issues? Angela Rayner said at the last Labour Party conference that a Labour Government “would ensure that every school in receipt of public money is genuinely democratically accountable to the people it serves” but she did not exactly pledge to return all academies to LA control. It would surely not be sensible to de-academise successful, popular schools. But many academies cannot be described in this way. Legal changes would be required and should be implemented to allow academies to return to the LA fold.
Michael Gove and his successors have inflicted significant damage on our education system. We have too many different types of school. Inappropriate courses, tests and examinations have been foisted on them. Over time Labour in power will need to be really radical in reshaping, with the profession, much of what is now taking place in our schools.