Academies that are struggling to hit exam targets are coming under intense scrutiny from the government after they were told 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 into the performance of academies, which have been heavily promoted by the government as key to 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. "It is asking for far more information than anything from the local authority or an inspection for a school in special measures. It strikes me as a very bureaucratic, heavy-handed approach.
"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, but warned that the process could be "counterproductive".
"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.
New Charter Academy in Ashton-under-Lyne, Greater Manchester, has not yet been asked to submit a scorecard, despite its GCSE results dipping 1 per cent below the floor target last year.
"Any academy that is vulnerable to dropping below the floor target is already working extremely hard to raise standards," said principal Stephen Ball. "This would be a very unwelcome deflection from what we're trying to do. Michael Gove has spoken about wanting to reduce bureaucracy and trust heads to do their jobs - this seems to fly in the face of that.
"People can already feel the breath of the bull on their backs; this won't incentivise them to do anything they are not already doing."
A spokesman for the DfE said: "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:
- 203 May 2010
- 629 April 2011
- 1,070 August 2011
- 1,957 July 2012
- 2,619 January 2013
Number of academies by type:
- 974 Primary
- 1,584 Secondary
- 1 PRU
- 59 Special schools.