The Academies Programme
Edward Leigh MP, Chairman of the Committee of Public Accounts, today said:
“It is too early to give an overall verdict on the success of the academies programme. The picture so far is mixed. On the plus side, the GCSE performance of academies has increased faster than that of other schools. How much that is down to the strong motivation and initial enthusiasm to be found in a new school and to the high level of spending on buildings only time will tell. The sustainability of rising academic attainment must be closely monitored and encouraged.
“On the minus side, levels of literacy and numeracy among academy pupils, while rising, on average fall short of those in all secondary schools. And academy sixth forms have in many cases been small and have significantly underperformed so far.
“But academies are intended to raise educational achievement in deprived areas; lower results compared with secondary schools overall do reflect the circumstances and prior attainment of the pupils. If academies’ performance is adjusted for these factors, then on average it is substantially better than that of secondary schools overall.
“Costs have not been kept under control, with 17 of the first 26 academy buildings each costing over £3 million more than expected. There is also no certainty about what it costs to run the new buildings in the longer term. This information is essential if funding and budgets are to be set at a realistic level.”
Mr Leigh was speaking as the Committee published its 52nd Report of this Session which, on the basis of evidence from the then Department for Education and Skills, examined the progress of the Academies programme and whether it is on track to achieve its objectives.
An academy is a publicly funded school that is supported by one or more sponsors and operates independently of the local authority. The Department intends that academies should raise achievement in deprived areas by replacing poorly performing schools or by providing new school places where they are needed. The first three academies opened in 2002 and, by September 2007, 83 academies were open and providing secondary education.
The Department aims to have 200 academies open or in development by 2010 at a capital cost of around £5 billion. The Department covers most of the capital costs and all of the running costs of academies. By October 2006, the programme had cost £1.3 billion in capital and running costs, including the costs of managing the programme. In November 2006, the former Prime Minister announced plans to double the number of academies to 400.
The average capital cost of the first new-build academies was £27 million, compared with between £20 million and £22 million for other new secondary schools. The difference partly reflects cost overruns on academies, but also differences in the size of academies compared with other schools, as well as their location in areas with relatively challenging sites and, on average, higher local construction costs.
It is too early to be certain whether the Academies programme will achieve its long term aims. There are signs of progress; for example, the GCSE performance of academies has increased faster than that of other schools, and there have been improvements at Key Stage 3 (age 14). Exclusions of pupils are higher, on average, at academies than at other schools.
Continuing improvements in attainment will depend on sustaining the energy and commitment of academy pupils and staff, and creating the same enthusiasm in new academies as they open. Literacy and numeracy of academy pupils have been rising but are still very low, at less than half the level of attainment in all secondary schools. In 2006, 22% of pupils in academies achieved five or more A*-C grades, including English and maths, compared with 45% in all schools. Most academies’ sixth forms have not performed well so far.
Academies need to collaborate with other secondary schools not only to share the benefits of their facilities and the lessons from the educational improvements they have made, but also to gain benefits for their own pupils, for example in broadening and improving the quality of education for all pupils, and particularly from age 16.
Established academies will need to manage within reduced budgets after the withdrawal of start-up funding, and meet the costs of maintaining their new buildings. The Department needs to learn the lessons from completed academy projects, especially on improving project management and reducing capital cost overruns. Building and opening a new academy can be an expensive way of tackling poor school performance, so as the programme expands the Department needs to balance the cost of academies and the benefits they bring against other school improvement programmes.