Academy overkill? By James Crabtree

15 May 08
With the main political parties all committed to the academies programme, there is a danger of over-expansion, says James Crabtree. Are there more cost-effective solutions to poor educational performance in existing schools?

16 May 2008

With the main political parties all committed to the academies programme, there is a danger of over-expansion, says James Crabtree. Are there more cost-effective solutions to poor educational performance in existing schools?

'I have a very good relationship with Andrew [Adonis]. He rings me up and says “Do you want this school?” And I ask, “what it's like?” And if it sounds like the sort of thing we are interested in, I say “yes”.' So claims Lord Harris, discussing conversations with the education minister in his role as a sponsor of the government's flagship academy schools programme. His words neatly sum up why many critics find fault with the programme.

Despite this, the roll-out of ever more academies remains a government priority. Enthusiasm for the programme – with 400 such schools now promised, and perhaps more later – has also become a test of politicians' commitment to further public services reform. Yet, with all parties competing to show their enthusiasm for academies, the time is right to ask where and how the programme should develop.

Academies remain deeply controversial. To their critics these independent state schools are out of step with the wider education system, in bed with dubious sponsors, unaccountable, and delivering mixed results. A coalition of unions and Left-wing Labour MPs stands ready to argue that the schools amount to the 'marketisation' of education, but do little to improve outcomes for pupils.

To their admirers, though, academies are seen to meld strong governance, new leadership and external sponsors that can give failing schools a fresh start. And their distinctive ethos, renovated buildings and freedom from regulation, it is claimed, can lead to significant improvements in school standards and new hope for children in the UK's most-deprived communities.

Who is right? The evidence is mixed. A government analysis commissioned by consultants PricewaterhouseCoopers suggests modest rises in standards amounting to improvements relative to predecessor schools. A recent National Audit Office study concurred, and a further government study expected this summer is likely to find much the same again.

Nonetheless, there are no genuinely high-performing academies, largely because they were established in deprived areas. They haven't been open long enough for a full cohort of pupils to pass through, making accurate measurement difficult. And an 'academies effect' – a statistical improvement in outcomes, controlling for all other variables – remains elusive.

This certainly hasn't curbed growth in the number of academies. When Gordon Brown was chancellor, there were hints of scepticism from his advisers. However, as prime minister, he quickly affirmed Tony Blair's target of 400 schools.

But Brown and his education minister have tinkered with the model. The initial focus on sponsorship from rich individuals and private businesses has been augmented with greater involvement of charities and faith organisations.

Local authorities are more central, with the most recent Department for Children, Schools and Families prospectus referring to academies as part of the 'wider family of schools', and highlighting examples in which local authorities were able to become more involved in opening them. And the academies have gradually been asked to become more involved in links with other local schools, for instance, through policies on behaviour partnerships or pupil exclusion.

Many of these changes have been criticised by opposition parties. Conservative shadow schools secretary Michael Gove rejects the idea of anchoring a wider role for LEAs, in particular. Instead, he has argued that academies should be allowed to take over failing neighbouring schools, and that parents and other groups should have rights to set up new schools whenever they wish.

The Liberal Democrats make the case for 'free schools' – described by one commentator as 'a turbocharged version' of the academy model. The result is an academy arms race, with politicians vying with each other to promote new types of school independence.

Even if evidence on standards is patchy, therefore, it seems likely that the programme will be expanded. Before it is, three important questions need to be answered.

First, how should all future academies be governed? At present the programme is run directly by the DCSF. This worked well with small numbers. But, with hundreds more in the pipeline, critics gibe that the government is turning itself into Britain's largest local education authority. This anomaly should be corrected, and an appropriate external body found, outside central government, to oversee any expansion.

Second, how independent should academies remain? There is tension between the government's desire to give them independence, while ensuring that they collaborate with other local schools. Academy supporters argue that local independence is crucial to the system's success. Nonetheless, the schools do have an impact on neighbouring schools, either by creating pressure for places or through policies such as those on exclusions, and can be locally controversial. Many school improvement strategies rightly emphasise local collaboration.

Before confirming the creation of more academies, the government should consider other models of collaboration – in particular, further twinning and partnering between high- and low-performing schools.

Third, how many academies should ultimately be built? Present expansion is focused on turning around 630 schools that fail to meet minimum GCSE targets. In short, a programme that began as a high-profile attempt to turn around a few failing schools has become a mainstream attempt to improve low performance.

Before government bids up the number from 400 to 600 and more, it should consider whether academies – at a cost of more than £25m each – are the most cost-effective way to fix schools that are coasting, not failing.

In answering some of the questions, fans of academies would do well to learn lessons from other countries, in particular, the US. Robert Schwartz, dean of the Harvard School of Education, makes a comparison with the growth of the charter school movement, which was designed to turn around a small number of failing US inner-city schools. The movement started brightly, but now, Schwartz argues: 'Most people… agree that [it] has not succeeded in revolutionising American education.'

Instead, he says: 'We have some very good charter schools, we have some awful charter schools, and we have a lot of mediocre charter schools.' The same result is true of the more recent movement to build 'small schools', which has also failed to deliver promised increases in standards.

The US lessons are clear. Structural reforms that promise a revolution in school standards can founder, as they grow. They suffer from 'mission creep' in which policymakers use them as tools to fix problems for which they were not designed. As the number of city academies expands – and assuming the magic 'academies effect' remains elusive – the danger is that these schools will develop a performance distribution just like that of other schools.

If they do, the strong reputation they have developed might be damaged. And, at the least, the risk that any 'bog standard' academies might be created should give the government pause for thought before further expanding the programme.

James Crabtree is associate director of public services at the Institute for Public Policy Research


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