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Are we reaping the consequences of academy chains growing too fast?

The performance of large multi-academy trusts has been very much in the spotlight in recent weeks, writes the executive director of the Centre Forum thinktank

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In the past fortnight, Ofsted has issued damning letters to two large and high-profile academy trusts; the Academies Enterprise Trust (AET) and E-ACT. Between them, these trusts are responsible for 90 schools across the country.

Neither has been without controversy in recent years. In 2014, AET (the country’s largest chain with 67 schools) was banned from taking over any more schools following concerns that it was expanding too quickly and, last year, it transferred eight of its academies to other sponsors citing that they were "geographically isolated" from its other schools. AET was also given a financial notice to improve in October 2014 – a notice which has not yet been lifted by the Education Funding Agency. In the past two years, E-ACT has had to relinquish control of 10 of its schools following negotiations with the Department for Education about its capacity and, up until last summer, it was also subject to a financial order to improve.

As well as overall concerns about poor quality provision, there were common themes across both Ofsted letters to the trusts. Standards are particularly poor in secondary schools; attainment is below the national average and in many academies, so too was progress made between years 7 and 11.

Ofsted was also critical about the attainment of disadvantaged pupils, citing poor levels of progress made compared with more affluent pupils by the end of key stage 4. Unauthorised absence was a common thread and although both trusts have made efforts to improve, Ofsted was damning about the amount of learning time that has already been lost. Both trusts also fell short in relation to transparency of governance arrangements and significant turbulence of board members (in E-ACT all but one of the seven members has changed in the past year).

The issue of accountability

It is unfortunate for the DfE that these reports came so close together, magnifying the issue of accountability of academy chains. But this isn’t a new issue and neither is it unexpected. As the academies programme has grown over the past 15 years, so too have concerns about accountability, transparency of both funding and governance arrangements and intervention.

A report published by the education select committee last year highlighted the risks of radical expansion. The CEO of the Harris Federation, Daniel Moynihan, is quoted as saying “some academies have grown… too quickly, and that growth has not been controlled”. In the US, the charter schools model is subject to an optimum growth rate of 5 per cent a year in order to ensure that both sponsors and schools are of a high quality. However, the temptation to expand too fast in order to meet economies of scale has seemingly befallen many chains in recent years and, in cases such as AET and E-ACT, we are starting to see the consequences of hasty decision-making.

And what of the role of regional schools commissioners? Set up by the DfE in a rather hurried response to calls for a "middle tier", the role of RSCs seems ever-evolving and there remains a distinct lack of clarity over how they will work across regional boundaries to address weaknesses that stem from poor leadership and management at trust level. Unless the DfE clarifies these arrangements, there remains a risk that RSCs, academy trust boards and Ofsted will soon start tripping over themselves.

As last month’s select committee report confirmed, the landscape of oversight, inspection, intervention and accountability in academies is complex. One of the biggest challenges for the DfE in addressing this will be how it balances a potential need for more scrutiny and accountability of academy chains while still ensuring that the good and outstanding academies within those chains enjoy the freedoms and autonomy that have been at the heart of these reforms.

Natalie Perera is executive director and head of research at think tank Centre Forum

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