Three out of four academy chains have “coasting” secondary schools and some sponsors are “harming” the prospects of disadvantaged pupils, according to research published today.
The findings raise significant doubts about the capacity of academy sponsors to take on more schools, academics say. They are urging the Department for Education to widen its pool of sponsors to meet demand.
Ministers have made conversion to academy status their chosen remedy for “failing” and “coasting” schools. But the report, published by social mobility charity the Sutton Trust, suggests that 44 per cent of existing academies would be branded as “coasting” if the government’s tough new guidance on acceptable standards were in force today.
Professor Becky Francis, who co-authored the report, said the results put the government’s reliance on academisation into question: “I think our findings throw into doubt whether there is sufficient capacity among academy sponsors to deal with the current job of improving schools, let alone if this is going to be a rapidly expanding agenda.”
She added: “Some standout successful chains are demonstrating significant improvements…but they are limited to a handful. There is a bigger number that are significantly struggling.”
The report, Chain Effects 2015: the impact of academy chains on low-income students, reveals a growing gap between the progress of disadvantaged pupils at the best and worst academy chains. Although the attainment of poorer students in the highest-performing chains – such as Ark Schools, the Harris Federation and the City of London Corporation – is improving, a handful of sponsors are actually “harming” the prospects of their most disadvantaged pupils, it says.
It adds that the evidence does not yet support the DfE claim that “the growth in sponsored academies has transformed the performance of the most disadvantaged pupils by turning around the worst-performing schools”.
The report warns: “Our findings suggest that the government stores up trouble for the future by optimistically assuming that all sponsors have the capacity to improve schools.”
The researchers ranked academy chains according to a range of performance measures for disadvantaged pupils: the percentage achieving five A*-Cs at GCSE including English and maths; their progress between key stages 2 and 4; the proportion achieving the English Baccalaureate; and a capped point score from their best eight GCSEs.
The academics compared a chain’s 2014 performance in the measures with that of all mainstream schools to calculate an overall “attainment” score; they then compared this with 2012 data to determine an “improvement” score.
The report notes that “a small number of chains, but notably a larger group than the high-achieving chains” that were below average for attainment in 2012, had, two years later, “fallen further back, demonstrating harmful impact”.
The attainment and improvement measures taken together show the Midland Academies Trust as the worst performer, followed by the Meller Educational Trust, the Greenwood Dale Foundation Trust, and the Landau Forte Charitable Trust.
“The government must not ignore the negative impact that a number of chains…are having on school quality and the life chances of the young people they serve,” the report warns.
Russell Hobby, general secretary of the NAHT headteachers’ union, said the logic behind turning every school into an academy was “increasingly untenable”. He added: “There seems to be a collective faith that academies will provide all the changes the government wants but that isn’t backed up by credible evidence. It’s time the DfE looked at other solutions.”
Researchers looked at the progress and attainment of disadvantaged secondary students in 34 academy chains with three or more schools. The chains had to have at least two secondary or all-through academies from the start of the 2011-12 school year to the end of 2013-14. Overall, 26 out of 34 had one or more schools that could be defined as coasting. The report recommends that new chains should not be allowed to expand until they have a proven track record in improving standards.
A DfE spokesman said: “A coasting school can only be identified based on performance over three years, so we won’t know until 2016 which schools they will be.” He added that the academies programme had “transformed the lives of millions of pupils, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds”.
The Midland Academies Trust said: “We are aware of the achievement shortcomings for disadvantaged students within some parts of the trust for 2014, and have taken robust steps to overcome these, with some impact for 2015.”
To see the Sutton Trust's ranking of academy chains, get the 24 July edition of TES on your tablet or phone by downloading the TES Reader app for Android or iOS. Or pick it up at all good newsagents.