The mounting evidence of serious problems with academies and free schools is clearly causing concern even behind the walls of the House of Commons. The Education Select Committee (a cross-party panel of MPs) reached some very critical conclusions.
Drawing on a range of evidence, it raised serious issues about erratic standards; the lack of impact on disadvantaged pupils; dysfunctional sponsors; the marginalization of parents and lack of a complaints procedure; the DfE’s failure to deal with serious financial irregularities; and the lack of collaboration with other local schools.
“Current evidence does not allow us to draw firm conclusions on whether academies are a positive force for change.”
“The majority of academy freedoms are available to all schools. One of the few that is not available is the freedom to vary the curriculum. We recommend that curriculum freedoms be made available to all schools.”
“The limited use of their freedoms by academies suggests that more needs to be done to encourage them to innovate.”
MPs were concerned that primary schools were being turned into academies without evidence of any benefits. It criticised the drive to turn all schools into academies. It questioned the opening of free schools in areas where there were already sufficient school places, and the criteria behind decisions.
The Select Committee recommended that the curriculum freedoms of academies should be made available to all schools, but also noted academies’ failure to make use of those freedoms and innovate.
Their report was concerned about the lack of a middle tier, with all power held by central government. It doubted that the eight Regional Commissioners would make much difference, and called for a strengthening of the role of local authorities.
Education minister Nicky Morgan’s response, just published, appears evasive and complacent. Here are some of her statements, followed by suggestions of what an honest response might look like.
Minister’s reply: The appetite for academy status has been apparent right across the country
She could have said: Many schools were pressurised to become academies against the wishes of governors and parents. Others converted to academies on the promise of increased budgets.
Minister: We are extending our analysis of what a good sponsor looks like.
She should have said: Recent research shows that hardly any chains are working well.
Minister’s reply: Education systems across the globe have been shifting power and responsibility to leaders of education. The academies programme gives schools greater autonomy and opportunity to innovate, within a strong framework of accountability.
She should have said: ‘Increasing autonomy’ means many different things around the world. English schools have had considerable autonomy since 1988 (Local Management of Schools). The Select Committee are correct in stating that local authority schools already had most of the powers given to academies. We must begin to take more seriously the consequences of reducing local authority support, along with the loss of links with other local services.
The Minister: We are absolutely clear about the impact that academies and free schools have had on children’s achievement in these schools.
The reality: Researchers have demonstrated that the apparent improvement of results in secondary sponsored academies depends on them admitting fewer disadvantaged pupils and on ‘gaming’ with easier qualifications instead of GCSEs. There is also no benefit for disadvantaged students. Like primary academies, secondary sponsored academies have improved no more than other similar schools.
The Minister: The proportion of [primary] pupils achieving level 4 or above in reading, writing and maths increased by nine percentage points since opening, double the rate of improvement across all schools.
The Minister: The great majority of free schools are performing well. 68% of those free schools inspected were rated ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted under its tougher new inspection framework.
She should have said: We are deeply embarrassed that 32% or 1 in 3 free schools have been placed in special measures or judged to require improvement. One would expect such new schools to be places of enthusiasm and commitment. Our vetting process has clearly been useless.
The Minister: Regional School Commissioners exercise the Secretary of State’s responsibilities for the educational performance of academies, including free schools, university technical colleges and studio schools. They have improved our oversight and intervention in academies by providing local intelligence and increased sector expertise to make speedy, informed and decisive interventions.
She should have said: We know the wheels are falling off our academies and free schools programme. Regional Commissioners are a last desperate attempt to apply sticking plaster to a situation which is out of control. I admit we are ideologically opposed to rebuilding local authorities, let alone stronger forms of democratic responsibility and participation.
Minister: Innovation is only relevant if it is making a difference to standards.
She might have said: I agree, we can’t find much innovation.
Minister: The department has clearly established and publicised channels for parental complaints in academies. If parents have issues concerning academies, it is important that these are carefully considered by the academy.
She should have said: You surely don’t expect us to return to the previous situation of having several elected parent representatives on governing bodies, or parents appealing to local councillors. If parents don’t like something about their academy, they should move the child to another one. That is what we call freedom of choice.
Minister: For academies there is a clear chain of [financial] accountability.
She should have said: Whenever public services are privatised, large sums of money find ways of getting into private hands.