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All primary schools must become academies or risk failure, says thinktank

Every primary school must be converted into an academy over the next five years if they are to meet the government’s new floor targets due to come in by 2016, a controversial report released today recommends.

All remaining local authority secondary schools – about 44 per cent of the secondary sector – should also be made to convert over the same period, the research suggests.

All schools will then be made to join an academy chain by 2020 to protect themselves against a “perfect storm” of challenges, such as large numbers of heads retiring, ongoing cuts in local authority funding and tougher standards.

The study, published by the right-leaning thinktank Policy Exchange, estimates that more than 3,000 primary schools – almost a fifth of all primaries – are in danger of falling short of the government’s minimum standards in reading, writing and maths by 2016.

Primaries will be expected to ensure that 85 per cent of their pupils leave school having achieved an old level 4 in reading, writing and maths in two years’ time – a significant increase from the 65 per cent floor target that exists today.

By converting to academy status and joining a chain, a “school-led, self-improving system” will be created, the study claims.

The best schools should also be able to move between chains, which would create “greater competition and fluidity in the market” and prevent a chain building a “local monopoly of offering a poor service”.

Earlier this month, the head of Ofsted, Sir Michael Wilshaw, told TES he wanted to see legislation that would force all schools to join clusters in a bid to better support one another. 

So far, take-up of academy status has been slow among the primary sector, with just 11 per cent of schools opting to make the switch as opposed to 56 per cent of secondary schools.

Although the report – Primary Focus: The next stage of improvement for primary schools in England – acknowledges that academy schools are “not a panacea”, leaving schools to opt to become an academy by themselves is “too slow”, the thinktank claims.

Jonathan Simons, Policy Exchange’s head of education, said that the government had made “great strides” in improving the country’s primary schools but a “potential perfect storm of a new curriculum and assessment system and a demand for higher standards accompanied by a decline in leadership” meant that thousands of primary schools could be set to fail come 2016.

“The question for government is how can the expertise, capacity and capability of the best schools, leaders and teachers be harnessed and magnified in order to avoid this,” Mr Simons said.

“This report’s conclusion is that bringing schools together in academy chains is what is needed. And while there are some already moving in this direction, simply leaving it up to individual schools risks being too slow.”

The report also calls for the role of the new regional school commissioners to be “beefed up”, giving them the power that currently resides in the Department for Education. Under the changes, the commissioners would have the ability to approve new chains, as well as being able to split chains up and to move schools from one to another if they have concerns over standards.     

In a foreword for the report, Sir David Carter, regional school commissioner for south-west England, claims the changes could be “revolutionary”.

“An entirely autonomous academised system is a vision which I wholly endorse,” writes Sir David, former executive principal at the Cabot Learning Federation of primary and secondary schools. “Not because of a statistical quest to have every school an academy, but because the academy in which you will work will be part of a wider family and the independence this brings creates opportunity for innovation and choice.”

Labour's education spokesman, Tristram Hunt, dismissed the idea, stating that improving the quality of teaching was the best way of improving schools.

"The surest way to ensure that every child, in every classroom, receives the education that they deserve – giving them the best start in life – is to deliver a world class teacher in every classroom, starting at primary school," he said.

Related stories:

Force schools to join clusters’, Wilshaw says - 5 September 2014

Academies cool on freedoms, survey shows - 11 March 2014

Nearly 600 primary schools forced into academy status - 7 April 2014

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