Academies that are struggling to hit exam targets are coming under intense scrutiny from the Westminster government, which has told them to submit detailed performance scorecards to officials every six weeks.
The Department for Education has requested the information from around 100 secondary academies that it believes are in danger of dropping below the floor target of 40 per cent of pupils obtaining five A*-C GCSEs, including maths and English. The move is the most widespread intervention by ministers so far in the performance of academies, which have been heavily promoted by the government as a key factor in driving school improvement.
Figures released earlier this month showed that almost 60 per cent of secondary schools have now converted to academy status or are in the process of converting, making them directly answerable to the DfE.
Ministers have championed the extra autonomy given to academies, but heads' leaders say they now face more intense scrutiny than struggling schools that have not converted. The Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) has accused the DfE of monitoring academies more closely than failing schools placed in special measures.
The scorecards ask for up-to-date data on everything from pupil attainment and attendance to exclusion rates. Academies are also expected to rate their performance in categories such as finance, admissions and the quality of lessons as either "excellent", "good", "adequate" or "of concern", broadly equivalent to Ofsted's four grades.
Heads are also asked to evaluate the "daily operation of school", with the options ranging from "good systems, runs smoothly" to "reactive, many 'incidents'".
"It's an extraordinarily detailed intervention," said ASCL general secretary Brian Lightman. "Some of the indicators would not change in the course of six weeks. What a struggling school needs is support to improve, rather than to fill in lots of forms and report data. If there are issues in a school, it needs to be monitored, but in one particular case the school had just been rated 'good' in an inspection."
Russell Hobby, general secretary of heads' union the NAHT, said the DfE wanted to avoid the embarrassment of criticism being directed at its flagship academy programme because of underperformance.
"It's something the government has to be seen to be getting quite tough on," said Mr Hobby. "I can see why they're putting pressure on academies, but there is a pace to school improvement. Some schools are not sure they want to complete (the scorecard). I think they can choose to refuse to complete it, but it depends whether that's the message they want to send out."
Debate about how the performance of academies should be monitored is ongoing. Ofsted chief inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw has said that he wants the watchdog to inspect increasingly powerful academy chains. But education secretary Michael Gove has said he does not want to add another layer of "bureaucracy" by introducing a "middle tier" between central government and academies.
A spokesman for the DfE confirmed that under the scorecard initiative, it could approach "any academy that we might have concerns about" to take part but that there were no set criteria that triggered the monitoring.
He added: "We haven't received any concerns from academies about scorecards, and some have said they find this process useful. The data we ask for should be readily available and is requested on a six-weekly basis to fit in with the majority of academies' own internal data collection.
"We are responsible for monitoring the performance of academies and must challenge and support those that are below, or at risk of falling below, the floor standards."
Total number of academies
May 2010 203
April 2011 629
August 2011 1,070
July 2012 1,957
January 2013 2,619
Number of academies by type:
PRU (pupil referral unit) 1
Special schools 59.