Academies: really doing something that's new?

21st August 2009 at 01:00
In the latest of our series, a union official and an academy chain's managing director take sides

Both Labour and the Conservatives see the semi-independent institutions as the best way of replacing failing state schools and raising standards. But their critics argue that their improvements often result from changes that successful comprehensives can and do make, too, rather than from freedoms or input from sponsors.

In the latest of our summer series, a union official and an academy chain's managing director take sides.

  • Have your say and cast a vote in the poll on the right
    • John Bangs, Head of education, National Union of Teachers, says "No - nowhere in research about improvement does the status of schools feature"

      There is a sense of yearning about the search by the Government and the Conservative Party for evidence that, in itself, academy status raises standards. It is a Holy Grail.

      The "newness" of academies is touted as a symbol of their unique value. Their supporters argue that they are uniquely new and as such are at the vanguard of innovation. So is there anything genuinely new about academies?

      There are, of course, some new features. They are schools maintained by the Government, and their sponsors have a direct relationship with them. The unique whackiness of many of the sponsors is a feature, too.

      Academies have received substantial amounts of favourable funding which has paid for, among other things, new forms of expensive vanity architecture.

      The Government and academy sponsors have also strained every sinew to headhunt headteachers and pay them at substantially higher rates than colleagues in maintained schools.

      Academies are relatively new in being able to bypass national pay and conditions for their staff. And, uniquely, many can, through their funding agreements, refuse to recognise unions. Only city technology colleges, now subsumed into academy status, enjoyed such freedoms.

      Also new is the fact that academies have escaped Ofsted themed inspections and have been subject to a unique evaluation by PricewaterhouseCoopers instead.

      And unlike with their predecessors, grant-maintained schools, parents have had no say in whether academies should be established, a fact that has angered local campaigners.

      Academies have a uniquely new approach to admissions and pupil exclusions whereby the percentage of pupils entitled to free school meals has dropped and exclusions have gone up.

      That much is new. So what about the claim that academy status in itself is responsible for raised standards?

      Much research has been carried out in identifying the key features of school improvement. We know they include equity, a positive classroom climate, consistent support for both pupil and teacher learning, focused and distributed pedagogic leadership, and sufficient time and resources. However, nowhere in the research does the status of schools feature.

      Neither has school-improvement research identified any new characteristics of improvement that exist outside maintained schools. As the PwC report says: "The characteristics of academies such as high standards, strong leadership and governance, a strong focus on teaching and learning . are universal aspirations for all schools wishing to improve (and) are also evident in many local authority-maintained schools."

      Indeed, PwC studiously avoids making any link between the distinguishing features of academies and high standards, concluding that "there is insufficient evidence to make a definitive judgment about academies as a model of school improvement".

      How could there be? Innovation and new ideas are integral to standards, not structures. Teachers in academies, like those in other schools, want the best for their pupils. There is nothing new in that and, leaving aside any short-term boost to self-efficacy triggered by additional resources and new facilities, academies are no different to other schools in their hopes, fears and aspirations.

      There is nothing unique in academies about the day-to-day dialogue between teachers, support staff and pupils. Nor in the curricular freedoms they enjoy. The divide between schools that innovate and those that do not is more likely to be determined by whether they are blessed with Ofsted designations of outstanding or good, or whether they are under the cosh because they have been judged unsatisfactory or satisfactory.

      In short, academies operate according to the day-to-day dynamics of pedagogy, staffpupil relations and the pressures of external accountability that are integral to every school.

      Yet while there is nothing new in all this, there is perhaps one point academy supporters should bear in mind. The so-called new features of academies may turn out to be a fundamental disadvantage.

      Academy status self-evidently acts as a barrier to sharing resources, drawing on the skills and expertise of staff in other schools and using the local authority to broker links and relationships with schools in other authorities. This is unfortunate because despite the "newness" of independence and sponsorship, it is collaboration and co-operation that is going to be vital in the tough financial times ahead.

      Lucy Heller, Managing director, ARK Schools, says "Yes - although no sensible supporter would make a fetish of their being new or unique"

      Are academies really doing something new? The answer has to be yes, although I think it is the wrong question to ask - the important issue is surely not whether academies are new but whether they work.

      John Bangs acknowledges that there are innovative aspects to the academy programme but is dismissive of the benefits. There is space to take issue with him on just two key points. Sponsorship is an important innovation, not because all sponsors will do a great job (any more than all local authorities do), but because opening up to new entrants brings in valuable expertise, challenges existing orthodoxies and expands the range of solutions on offer.

      I have yet to meet any "uniquely wacky" sponsors, but it is ineviable that some sponsorships will not work out. But as Einstein said: "The only sure way to avoid making mistakes to have no new ideas."

      It is reasonable to be sceptical about the independence of the Department for Children, Schools and Families-commissioned PwC evaluation, but it is worth noting it is unequivocal that sponsorship contributes significantly to school improvement (a view shared by Ofsted).

      John Bangs is unhappy about the freedom under which some (but by no means all) academies have their own staff contracts, although it is not clear whether the objection is to salaries being higher, lower or simply different. It seems odd that a union official should rail against higher pay (and after recent revelations about the salaries paid to heads of some London community schools, it is not clear that academies are even in the lead on this).

      Academy governing bodies are surely at one with their community school counterparts in wanting to pay the salaries needed to attract the best teachers. For both, the constraint is funding which, contrary to Mr Bangs' assertion, is at "the same levels as neighbouring schools with similar pupil profiles", as the final PwC report made clear.

      No sensible supporter of academies would make a fetish of their being new or unique. The litmus test is whether academies can enable the children who, until now, have been badly served by their education, to succeed. It is still early days - the first cohort of children to have spent all seven years of their secondary education in academies left school this summer and only 24 academies have been in existence for more than three years.

      It is too early for a definitive judgment on academy effectiveness, but the early signs are promising. In the 36 academies that had GCSE results in both 2007 and 2008, the increase in pupils achieving five A*-Cs, including English and maths, was 4.3 percentage points over the two years, compared with 2.5 percentage points nationally.

      The three ARK academies, which will report GCSE results this summer, expect to show an improvement rate nearly three times higher than that average, with a weighted annual increase of 6.7 percentage points since opening.

      The average academy is three times oversubscribed. Some parents may have been attracted by the handsome new facilities (hard to begrudge in that the schools are generally among the most disadvantaged). And this is even though they are signing up for time spent in less-than-glamorous temporary accommodation while rebuilding and refurbishment go on around them.

      I agree entirely that col-laboration and co-operation between schools is important, but do not accept for a minute that academy status is a barrier to this. The most recent example of this is the partnership between Mossbourne Academy and Haggerston, a neighbouring community school in Hackney, east London.

      Given that academies account for less than 4 per cent of the secondaries in this country, the attention they have attracted seems disproportionate. The programme was set up to address the problems of the 200 worst- performing schools. But with less than half the children in this country currently achieving five GCSEs, including English and maths, it is clear that the educational issues facing us go much beyond the tail of underperforming schools.

      The energies of the anti-academy campaigners would be better spent in coming up with new answers to the larger question of our failure to educate effectively half the population. Academies do not pretend to have a monopoly on success or innovation - there certainly can and should be different models - but it is essential that arguments about school structure do not divert us from the task of making better schools.

      Back story.

      • Labour says it wants 400 academies in total while the Conservatives plan to expand the programme even further.
      • The improvement in academies' GCSE results was twice that of other state schools last year.
      • Academies' freedoms include being able to set the pay and conditions of their staff, although voluntary-aided schools also have this freedom.
      • The most radical curriculum idea was proposed by the Bexley Business Academy, which said its pupils would spend each Friday "business skills", sometimes using the school's specially-constructed trading floor. However, the scheme appears to have been dropped and is no longer mentioned in its prospectus.
        • Have your say and cast a vote in the poll on the right

          Responses to the TES web poll on last week's debate: "Should we push pupil voice further?".

          • YES: 19%
          • NO: 81%
            • Next week: "Should it be easier to exclude pupils?"

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