Academisation has swiftly become the cornerstone of the new government’s education agenda, with swathes of “failing” and “coasting” state schools facing conversion.
The expansion of the academies programme was always going to be controversial for those who argue that it represents a loss of democratic control and local accountability for state education. But a TES investigation has established that there are also serious doubts within the very organisations that ministers will be relying on to make their plans work.
Academy chains – which will be expected to take on large numbers of extra schools – have revealed major misgivings about funding, capacity and the government’s ability to manage the expansion.
The leaders of these organisations are understandably reluctant to speak out publicly and risk damaging their chains’ allimportant relationships with the Department for Education. But, under the promise of anonymity, they voiced their alarm about how the academies system has been run to date and their fears for the future.
‘Pushed’ to take on schools
The head of one large academy chain told TES that under the coalition government, DfE officials were “queuing up” to hand over schools in special measures to willing academy sponsors. At one stage, officials even lost track of the number of academy orders that had been signed off.
“They kept pushing us to take on more, to the point where we said we couldn’t accept any more schools,” the leader said. “They thought we had half the amount of academy orders we actually had.” The result was that some academy sponsors demanded that the DfE take back some of the schools.
Another head of a smaller academy chain, with just three schools, questioned where the additional capacity would come from to expand the programme, particularly as chains could only “top slice” about 3 or 4 per cent of funds to provide central services. The limited cash available made it harder to establish the back-office and support functions available to higher-performing chains, they said.
“The two most successful academy chains, Ark and Harris, have also had the most investment,” they added. “It’s an interesting point. If you don’t have a hedge fund or a Lord Harris, how do you grow as a chain? Where are they going to get these chains that will take on all of these schools rated inadequate?”
One of the biggest areas of frustration among sponsors is the DfE’s Education Funding Agency (EFA), which is responsible for academy funding. The mere mention of the body’s name was enough to provoke an unrepeatable diatribe from a senior source in one chain. Another said that “[the EFA] don’t know their left hand from their right”.
Malcolm Trobe, deputy general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, who sits on the advisory group of the EFA, admitted there were problems at the agency. “They are having to work on a very low staff ratio, so their capacity to deal with issues is limited,” he said.
No guarantee of improvement
There are wider concerns about academy operators. Becky Francis, professor of education and social justice at King’s College London, argued that the quality of sponsors entering the system would be fundamental to academy expansion.
Just 3.6 per cent of sponsorship applications had been rejected by the DfE, she told TES. “Over 96 per cent have been let in. I find that absolutely stunning. You would assume at least one in 10 would be turned down.”
As for the chains themselves, some of their concerns stretch beyond how the academies scheme has been run and into the whole rationale behind the expansion.
“We want to help build the system, but let’s be absolutely clear: becoming an academy does not automatically improve a school. That is totally obvious,” the chief executive of a multi-academy trust with about 20 schools told TES. “It’s too early to say how much academies can improve things, but they are not a panacea. That is one of the inconvenient truths that needs to be addressed.”
Just how quickly the government can respond to the criticisms remains to be seen. But, as one academy chief executive pointed out, there won’t be much room for mistakes: “We’re building a system as we go along, but the EFA, the DfE and Ofsted don’t all agree on what good looks like. That needs to change – and quickly.”
The Department for Education’s response
“We work with many excellent academy sponsors, which as successful schools in their own right know exactly what they have to do to make a failing school outstanding.
“Applicants must have a proven track record in educational improvement, financial management and high-quality leadership and governance before their applications are even considered.
“When running academy trusts, sponsors are subject to a strict system of oversight that is much more robust than in council-run schools.”
Read more in the 10 July issue of TES. You can read it on your tablet or phone, or by downloading the TES Reader app for Android or iOS. Or pick it up at all good newsagents.