Ministers have been urged to ensure academies maintain fair admissions policies after a report found evidence of covert selection.
Unleashing greatness, published today by the Academies Commission, said that despite ‘many stunning successes’ in the sector, some of the schools were willing to take the ‘low road’ to favour the brightest and more privileged children.
The report concluded that academies, which have freedom over the curriculum they teach as well as pay and conditions for staff, do not represent a ‘panacea for school improvement’.
The commission, chaired by former chief inspector of schools Christine Gilbert, was set up by the Pearson Think Tank and RSA to examine the long-term impact of academies on educational outcomes.
It recommended that all schools be placed on a common footing in terms of admissions. The Office of the Schools Adjudicator, or other independent organisation, should provide an appeals service for disputes at academies, as well as acting on any suggestions of what the commission called ‘socio-economic segregation’.
The coalition government has allowed more schools to apply for academy status since coming to power, leading to a rapid increase in their number, from 203 in August 2010 to more than 2,300 at the start of the current academic year.
Gilbert urged ministers to apply‘more systematic approach’ to the next phase of conversions.
Launching the report, she said a ‘successfully academised system’ would have schools supporting and learning from one another to improve the quality of education in this country.
The ‘ambition and pace of the government’s academies programme cannot be doubted’, Gilbert said, adding: ‘There are already many examples of stunning success, however academisation alone cannot bear the burden of improvements.
‘There has to be enough support and challenge in the system, and enough checks and balances, for academies or groups of academies to be able to use the independence they have gained professionally and with moral purpose.’
The National Union of Teachers said the report showed that some chains of academy schools were ‘more concerned with expanding their empires than with improving schools’.
General secretary Christine Blower added: ‘The academies and free school programme is ensuring that many young people from the most disadvantaged circumstances are having those disadvantages compounded.
‘It is no surprise that academy chains are finding ways around selecting only the pupils they want. It has also been shown that free schools admission policies are resulting in fewer children on free schools meals and with Special Educational Needs being admitted.’
The Association of School and College Leaders welcomed the report. General secretary Brian Lightman said the academy movement had provided much needed vitality within the education system.
He added: ‘The key elements in raising standards are inspirational teaching and strong leadership. Therefore the key question is whether academies are using the freedoms they have to benefit students. Acquiring the label of “academy” is not in itself a panacea for raising achievement. The capacity of those schools to make a real difference will be entirely dependent on the quality of leadership and teaching and learning.’