There has been much concern raised, from a wide variety of quarters, in recent months about the DfE’s headlong rush to convert as many state maintained schools as possible to academy status. The BBC Q&A on academies http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-13274090 explores the expansion of academies under the Coalition Government.
The most important question that surely needs to be asked is whether the academy model improves attainment for the students attending the converted school. To date much of the data produced to assess the efficay of academies on this basis are not convincing. According to the National Audit Office report into academies in September 2010 academies were a long way from matching the national average for the percentage of pupils achieving five or more A* – C grade GCSEs or equivalent particularly when English and Maths were included. They were however, asssessed as making good progress against comparable maintained schools, both in absolute attainment and relative to prior attainment. Furthermore it was judged that the overall performance trend masked ”wide variation between individual academies with some performing exceptionally well and others making little progress”. The NAO were unable to produce a full explanation whether in regard to relative local deprivation or pupil’s prior attainment.
The same report also testifies that for later academies entries for GCSEs decreased more rapidly than other schools between 2006-07 and 2008-09. This was part of a general trend for including an increasing number of GCSE equivalent subjects on the school curriculum. But for later academies the proportion of entries to GCSE equivalents in 2008-09 was 7% higher than earlier academies and 10% higher than maintained schools. This would suggest that the primary reason for any progress achieved has been the exponential growth in vocational courses recently discredited by Michael Gove and many of which are now to be removed from the secondary education system. The Anti Academies Alliance goes even further in its criticism of the lack of educational improvements in academies when it drills into the Ebacc results and removes what it classes as the government’s ideological spin. Only 1 in 33 pupils in academies achieved this benchmark qualification even though most of their students are not disadvantaged. The national average number of students who got 5 A-Cs achieving an EBacc was 33% whilst it was just 12% in academies. Worse still this figure drops to a dreadful 8% once you strip out academies that were formerly independent, grammar or high achieving schools. If you remove grammar and other selective schools from the equation approximately 80% of academies saw 5% or fewer students achieving an EBacc. The inference therefore, is that by the Government’s own acadamic standards academies don’t work.
Mossbourne Academy in Hackney has been held up as an exemplar for the potemtial success of academies in turning failing schools in deprived areas around but according to those in the know former head of Mossbourne Sir Michael Wilshaw previously achieved the same spectacular results at St. Bonaventures in Newham without the multimillion pound investment from a sponsor, brand new buildings and all the structural upheavals that accompany conversion to academy status.
Aside from the academic aspects are academies financially sustainable? According to the NAO report as of March 2010 at least 58% of academies had received none of their pledged funding from sponsors. By January 2011 the Public Accounts Committee reported that:
The Department has failed to collect all the financial contributions due from sponsors. The status of some of these contributions remains unclear as payment schedules are abandoned, and now that future sponsors have no such obligations. The Department should clarify the status and recoverability of these outstandingdebts, negotiate clear and realistic payment schedules with the relevant sponsors, and monitor repayment.
In addition there were concerns about a number of academies failing to follow the guidance of the Academies Financial Handbook. There were also serious concerns about the processes for monitoring academies’ financial position and performance which were judged as not fit for purpose. Worrying too is the fact that according to the NAO report The Young People’s Learning Agency (the body overseeing the academy programme) has identified that just over a quarter of academies may require additional financial or managerial support to secure their longer-term financial health.
As of January 2011 even then the DfE was admitting that the administration of the academies programme was a stretch given the 33% budget cuts needed. And this was before the rapidly accelarating rate of academy conversions we are now witnessing. Additionally, according to the DfE’s website an initial start-up grant of £25,000 is made available to each new academy while they would annuallly receive an extra £300-£500 per pupil. But clearly this money is not always spent as well as it should be. A growing proportion of a shrinking education budget is being diverted to fund an idealogically driven policy that doesn’t work on an academic level and is not financially sustainable either.
Furthermore, the ratio of inclusion of local representatives on the board of governors for academies means that local accountability has been affected and not for the better. For example the ratio of parent governors has been reduced from 22%-25% by law in maintained primary schools to an average of 11% for academies while the teacher representation has been reduced from a legally required 12.5% to a non-obligatory average of 9% of board members. All this serves to reduce local accountability and input into the running of academies and ensuring that they meet locally specific needs of students, families and the wider community.
It is becoming increasingly clear that this scheme needs a massive rethink. The changes needed to improve schools will not come from massive upheavals for teachers and students and new buildings accompanied by reduced local accountability and governance restructuring. The real improvements to students’ academic outcomes will be driven by highly motivated teachers and head-teachers who are respected as professionals and are confidently able to work in conjunction with Ofsted and the DfE to put in place empirically proven educational developments that are guided by education professionals with knowledge and experience of what is best for all students.
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