Academy sponsors were supposed to be the magic key to sort out struggling schools. This began with businessmen who supposedly knew more about education than teachers and local education authorities. There were few takers, and among them some dubious sponsors: second-hand car dealers, carpet salesmen, Christian fundamentalists seizing an opportunity, not to mention tax-avoiding hedge funds.
Then universities and colleges were approached, but without thinking through the required level of commitment (see later in this post).
Even the Co-op jumped on board, though the experience has not exactly been co-operative in its Leeds academy, involving falling GCSE results and an exodus of teachers (full story later).
We are now seeing the rapid growth of edubusiness, with academy chains as a substitute for local authorities. The most thorough recent research exposed deep problems, identifying only two large chains which appear effective.
But first – hot news of what looks suspiciously like insider trading: a decision to hand over Hewett School in Norwich to a Conservative Party donor who wields massive power over England’s schools. This will leave the city without a single Local Authority school.
After a fall in results last summer, it was re-inspected and moved from Good (May 2013) to Special Measures (Oct 2014). The site covers 54 acres believed to be worth around £60m, bought by the people of Norwich in the 1950s as an educational site. The local council’s plan was to develop a Learning Village, with early years, adult education, an autism school, and a family and community support centre. Local people are outraged. (see Anti-Academies Alliance and Eastern Daily Press)
The Pride’s Purge blog explains that Hewett was formerly 3 schools joined into one ‘hence the site is enormous: a juicy chunk of prime real estate in the centre of Norwich.’ Its author smells a rat in the DfE handing it over to Agnew’s Inspiration Trust who are already owners of Jane Austen College, a local free school which lacks adequate grounds.
Theodore Agnew appears to be at the giving as well as the receiving end in this handover of public property. He is a ‘ non-executive director’ of the Department for Education. He chairs its Academies Board, which controls the Regional School Commission which overseas his own academy chain! (see Schools Week) The trust has recently been subject to two inquiries following accusations that its chief executive Dame Rachel de Souza had prior warning of an Ofsted inspection.
Theodore Agnew is a powerful individual with solid business experience, including offshoring jobs to India where he could hire maths graduates for £70 a month. At the DfE he was involved in a plot to topple Michael Wilshaw as Chief Inspector: Wilshaw survived, insisting on his duty of ‘shining a spotlight on poor performance, whether in academy chains, free schools or local authority schools, no matter how uncomfortable this may be for some people… I will not allow Ofsted to be politicised’.
The prompt for Ofsted’s re-inspection and re-grading of Hewett was ostensibly a fall in results. The 5A-C with English and Maths score went up from 36% to 52%, then down to 43% and 44% in the last two years. It also had financial problems when the DfE cut funding and refused money for essential refurbishment.
But if academies are the answer, what about the academies which surround Hewett School? City Academy Norwich was graded Good in September 2011. Its GCSE score has since dropped from 39% and 40% to 24% and 29%. Ofsted visited in November 2014 but only to check on behaviour and exclusions, with no regrading. It also has financial difficulties involving a loss of 19 jobs.
Ormiston Victory Academy was judged Outstanding in May 2013. Inspectors were impressed by GCSE scores of 64% and 68%, rising to 73% just after the inspection. They fell last summer to 41%, but Ormiston still wears the Outstanding label.
Universities as academy sponsors
This may seem more palatable than a private Multiple Academy Trust but do universities necessarily make good sponsors? They may have strong Education faculties but it does not follow they can run schools well. Professor Becky Francis, director of the Academies Commission, explains “Sometimes sponsors seem to underestimate the extent of their responsibilities and their need for dedicated involvement, especially when they are in a partner-sponsorship arrangement”. As the college and universities lecturers union (UCU) has remarked: ‘Most colleges …. have their hands full running their own organisations, and staff are over stretched. Why should they take on running another, different and complex organisation’?
Universities may be tempted by a special relationship with a school but without considering how that affects the their ability to help all schools, some of which regard the university academy as a threat.
Academy sponsorship exposes universities to reputational as well as financial risk, as well as entangling them further with neoliberal ‘edubusiness’ tendencies.
Chester University calls itself the ‘leading university multi-sponsor of academies nationally’, but became one of 14 trusts barred from taking on more academies because of ‘unacceptable lower performance’. It has now withdrawn from two of its nine academies. Samworth Academy (University of Nottingham) was also told that its standards were ‘unacceptably low’.
Academies sponsored by the Universities of Staffordshire, Bradford and Sunderland remain ‘requiring improvement’. Those sponsored by Bournemouth and Liverpool have been abandoned after financial failings; a Trust backed by Canterbury Christ Church University has also run into financial difficulty.
University sponsorship, like private business sponsorship, undermines local democracy. The spectacle of university academy trusts ‘consulting’ via meetings of small numbers of parents or sealing deals behind closed doors is unedifying. Nor is it without risk to public money: UCU has warned that sponsors have potentially autocratic powers which lead to potential abuses similar to those of the ‘cash for honours’ scandal.
At the heart of the problem – and of all academy sponsorship – is the democratic deficit. The only sustainable way to develop schools, and particularly those in challenging environments, is to tap into the knowledge of teachers, pupils, parents and local people. Universities have a lot to offer to schools by sharing the knowledge they hold and develop, but not by taking control as ‘sponsors’.
with thanks to Nadia Edmond and Aidan Pettitt for parts of this post