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Chris Skidmore MP: Three years on, the Academies Act in review

Screen shot 2013-08-01 at 19.35.41Chris Skidmore is Member of Parliament for Kingswood and a member of the Education Select Committee. Follow Chris on Twitter.

With exam season over, GCSE and A-Level students in their thousands will be waiting nervously for the results of what will have been years of hard work. It is also three years since the Academies Act, which promised to deliver a revolution in education, was passed in to law. It seems particularly fitting at this time to give Michael Gove and the Department for Education some assessment – their own mid-term exams, if you like.

What did the Academies Act do?

One of the core principles of the education reforms initiated under Tony Blair has been that schools can thrive when they are given autonomy from their Local Authority and allowed to run the school as they see best for their pupils. The Academies programme, started under Labour, had been replacing a limited number of poorly-performing schools in deprived area with autonomous academies, transforming education for thousands.

Yet while academies attracted a lot of publicity, the scope of the project was very limited. In 2010, after eight years of the programme, there were just 203 academies open, with a longer term target of 400. Michael Gove made clear that he wanted to see this accelerate substantially; so in 2010 he gave all schools the chance to seek academy status and independence from their local authority. For the first time, this would be open to primary and special schools too. 

The Academies Act also introduced free schools in to the system. Inspired by those in Sweden, these are new schools set up in response to local demand. They can be set up by a wide range of providers, from teachers groups to parents to local businesses on a non-profit basis; all they need is a strong case for the school which they can put to the DfE. Free schools enjoy all of the autonomy given to academies, with schools able to set their own curricula, school holidays, and pay and conditions for staff.   

Has it worked?

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Thousands of schools have now seized this opportunity to convert, and though there has been a slight dip in the number created last year the number still remains very high. In just three years the number of academies has increased more than ten-fold, with three quarters of the 2721 new academies being the newly-created convertor academies, created from existing local authority-maintained schools. Alongside these are 81 new free schools, the second central innovation, with a further 102 due to open and 109 in the pipeline.

In its own terms, this huge expansion of schools free from local authority control has been a huge success. Convertor academies in particular have opened up autonomy to a huge number of schools to which it had previously been inaccessible.

The most controversial part of these reforms, the free schools, have so far defied the expectations of Labour opponents such as shadow education minister Tristram Hunt who derided them as, amongst other things, the ‘vanity projects’ of ‘west-London yummy mummies’. A diverse range of schools have opened under the policy, some from parent groups, others from religious groups and even, in the case of Century 21 school in Newham, one led by an ex-policy maker for Tony Blair.

These new schools have proved wildly popular with parents, and over 90 per cent of them have found themselves over subscribed upon launching.

What are Academies and Free Schools doing with their freedom?

Three years in ,we’re seeing more and more evidence of the innovation that freedom from local authorities is allowing. Take, for instance, the David Young Community Academy in Leeds. Rejecting the local authority-set three term school calendar, they have adopted a seven term year with a four week (rather than the more typical six week) summer holiday. This reduces the learning loss that can happen over summer while allowing for more regular breaks throughout the rest of the year.

More radically still, the first term begins in June, so Year Sevens come into the new school with all the momentum they had built up in their last year of primary education, rather than letting it slip away as it so damagingly tends to.

Academies and Free Schools have also been making use of their freedom to set their own pay and conditions for staff. The Greenwich Free School offers a good example of using flexible pay scales and employment contracts to get more out of staff, and reward those who are doing the best work. Rigid local authority pay scales tend to be much more a reflection of tenure than performance, and can see bright young teachers disillusioned by the huge gaps in pay between them and their less effective elders.

The Academies programme has also seen schools, free from the local authority, work together to improve. Chains of academies have emerged, with schools working together, sometimes under common trusts but also with looser, less formal, collaborative relationships. A Policy Exchange report released last year looked at how academy chains were pooling resources in order to save money and improve services like teacher training and development, which are harder to organise as a single institution.

Additionally, chains help best practice spread by creating dialogue between schools about what’s working in the classroom. By pairing up weaker schools with stronger ones chains also strengthen one of the founding objectives of the academies programme: helping failing schools catch up.

Although, unavoidably, there is only early evidence to go on, Ofsted’s Chief Inspector Michael Wilshaw has been very clear that, based on inspections, chains do appear to be more effective than single institutions. DfE have been working hands-on to encourage these chains and expand collaboration between schools, with Schools Minister Lord Nash saying recently that he wants to see schools doing more to ‘to engage with their feeder primaries and create local clusters to improve performance’, and revealing that the Department has been actively recruiting sponsors to do this.

How good are the schools?

Innovation is one thing, but it means nothing if it isn’t linked to outcomes. While, just three years into the rapid expansion of the programme, data remains quite thin on the ground, we are finally starting to build a fuller picture of the effectiveness of academies.

The key measure of success is how fast academies are improving relative to the state sector as a whole, and GCSE data released in January shows academies outperforming other schools. Across the state sector as a whole the proportion of pupils who achieved at least five good GCSEs, including Maths and English, rose by 0.6 percentage points, while in sponsored academies the increase was 3.1 percentage points – more than five times faster. 

There is also more inspection data now available. The 2012 Ofsted report found that out of the 204 inspected, 25 per cent of sponsored, chained academies were outstanding, compared to 21 per cent for the sector as a whole.

What next?

The sheer volume of new academies has certainly been remarkable, but there remains a problem of spread. In the midst of this huge expansion of autonomous schools there are still places where parents don’t have a choice other than their local authority-maintained school.

Screen shot 2013-08-01 at 19.39.28This heat map from the DfE’s latest annual review of the Academies programme shows the wide variation in the proportion of secondary academies across the country. There are 27 local authorities where less than a quarter of secondary schools are academies – that’s less than half the national average. The problem is most acute in Bury and Barking & Dagenham, where there isn’t a single academy. Worst of all, Bury doesn’t have any free schools either, giving the local authority a complete monopoly over education.

Roll out has also been far slower amongst primary schools, with more than two thirds of local authorities having fewer than 10 per cent of primary schools with academy status. It’s worth remembering why this is a problem: while there are many local authorities which do a perfectly good job of running the schools they are in charge of, there are also areas where the authority is persistently failing pupils. Take Portsmouth and Coventry for instance, where just 53 and 42 per cent of primary pupils respectively attend a school rated good or outstanding. This compared to places like Lambeth where more than 80 per cent of pupils do. 

In these areas where the local authority isn’t up to scratch, offering parents a choice is absolutely crucial. At the moment less than five per cent of their primaries are academies. The competition this choice creates doesn’t just help those going to the academies; it also helps to drive up standards across the board as maintained schools lose their monopoly position. 

Of course this needs to be seen in perspective. Before the 2010 Act you could count on two hands the number of local authorities where more than one in four secondary schools were academies. Yet this isn’t a problem we should be ignoring. With so much achieved in many parts of the country we can now afford to be more focused on delivering academies in the areas where the expansion hasn’t fully reached, particularly in areas with a failing local authority.

The drive for this has to come straight from the Department. Just as Ofsted have found many local authorities with poorly performing schools haven’t been using warning notices or appointing Interim Executive Boards, we also can’t rely on them to do the hands on work required to encourage applications. Government should state clearly an ambition to see autonomous schools in every part of the country, showing the same level of commitment they have to developing academy chains. This then needs to be backed up by concentrating resources to seek out sponsors and schools which are considering converting, then guiding them through the application process.

We should also start to consider whether local authorities that persistently fail to provide an acceptable standard of education for pupils should be removed from controlling pupils' education altogether, to be replaced by learning trusts (as took place in Hackney) or other education charitable providers committed to raising standards while keeping ideology and politics out of the classroom.

Three years since its passing into law, the Academies Act has already left a deep and lasting impression on education in this country. However, it’s clear the job isn’t done yet. While pupils in large parts of the country are now benefitting from the competition and innovation that academies and free schools bring it is by no means universal. Over the next two years we need to see a more focused Academies programme which tackles the those parts of the country that haven’t yet been reached, ensuring that this is an education revolution for all, not just for some.      

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