The Academies Programme has introduced healthy competition that may have helped drive improvement in English schools since 2010, say MPs, but the Department for Education must become more open about how it runs the programme and give Ofsted full powers to inspect academy chains.
Launching a report of a recent inquiry into Academies & Free Schools, Graham Stuart, Chair of Education Committee said today:
State of schools has improved
"It’s still too early to know how much the academies programme has helped raise standards. What we can say is that, however measured, the overall state of schools has improved during the course of the programme.
Current evidence does not prove that academies raise standards overall or for disadvantaged children. It is clear though that academisation has led to greater competition, challenging many maintained schools to improve and incentivising local authorities to develop speedier and more effective interventions in underperforming schools.
More evidence is urgently needed on the impact of academy status on primary schools and particular efforts made to encourage them to work in collaboration.
Less defensive and more open
Going forward, the Department for Education (DfE) should be less defensive and more open about its implementation of the academies programme, producing a range of clearer and deeper information about the performance of academy schools, chains and sponsors. It should also review the lessons of the rapid conversion of secondary schools to inform any future expansion.
While some chains have clearly raised attainment, others achieve worse outcomes creating huge disparities within the academy sector and compared to other mainstream schools. To address this problem Ofsted should be given the power to inspect academy chains in the same way it does local authorities.
Nearly half of all academies are not part of a chain. By being ‘stand-alone’, these schools risk becoming isolated from others and as such as both less likely to contribute to others and less supported if they begin to fail. In future Ofsted should require evidence of effective partnership with another institution before any school can be judged 'outstanding'.
To consolidate progress throughout the system, the curricular freedoms already given to academies should also be extended to all maintained schools.
To deliver better local oversight the Government must increase the number of Regional Schools Commissioners (RSCs). DfE must also better codify the role and responsibilities of local authorities as champions of local children, families and employers, and as brokers of effective collaboration between all schools. Any future government must examine closely whether the existing dual system of oversight and intervention - where RSCs look after academies and local authorities supervise maintained schools - is beneficial or not.
With regard to free schools, the DfE needs to be far more transparent about how and where it decides to fund a new free school. DfE should also generally avoid opening free schools in areas which have both spare places and an overwhelming majority of good or outstanding schools."
Conclusions and recommendations
In a report from its wide ranging inquiry into the impact of the Government’s Academies and free school programme, the Education Committee calls on the Department for Education to:
- Publish clear information setting out the process and criteria by which sponsors are authorised and matched with schools.
- Publish data on the performance of individual academies and each Multi Academy Trust or chain.
- Publish clear information setting out the process and criteria by which funding agreements are reviewed and renewed.
- Review the length of funding agreements (in the light of US experience of Charter Schools) with a view to reducing the model agreement to five years.
- Analyse what makes academy chains effective and actively promote best practice from outstanding Multi Academy Trusts like Ark and Harris more widely amongst other chains.
- Separate the regulatory and funding roles of the Education Funding Agency, in order to restore public confidence in the academies process.
- Address the serious problems posed by conflicts of interest by taking further steps to strengthen the regulations for governance in academy trusts.
- Create a mechanism for schools to be able to leave academy chains where appropriate.
- Be more open and transparent about the accountability and monitoring system applied to chains and the criteria used to pause their expansion.
- Give Ofsted the power it needs to inspect academy chains.
- Require all academies and chains to publish the salary and other remunerations of senior leaders (within bands) in their annual accounts.
- Publish a protocol for dealing with the failure of a large chains and for how individual schools will be treated when a chain can no longer run them.
- Make clear how competition for free school funding is decided and the relative weight that is given to innovation, basic need, deprivation and parental demand.
- Ensure that local authorities are informed of any proposal to open a free school in their area.
- Collect statistical information on free school intakes and monitor the impact of new schools on the intake and attainment of neighbouring schools.
- Commission research as a matter of urgency to assess the impact of academy status on attainment in primary schools.
- Make maintained primary schools in federations eligible for funding through the Primary Chains Grant to assist collaboration between primary schools.
- Review the lessons of wholesale rapid conversion across the secondary sector to identify lessons that can better inform any future expansion.
The Committee also calls on the Education Funding Agency to:
- Enhance transparency and accountability around how it monitors academy funding agreements.
- Revise its guidance on ‘at cost’ transactions to make expectations of academies clearer.