Small figure, big issue
It is not what was supposed to happen. Nor is it what ministers said was happening. But it has emerged this week that only 37 out of more than 1,200 schools that have converted to academy status since the election have acted on the coalition's request that they should formally sponsor a weaker school.
According to the latest Department for Education figures, out of the 1,243 schools to have taken up education secretary Michael Gove's offer to become an academy, just 3 per cent have taken the extra step to sponsor a less able school. The numbers lay bare how little converters are complying with the drive to get them to take "weaker schools under their wings".
The government has long used the partnering of high-performing and low- performing schools to justify its policy of academy conversion - some 578 outstanding schools have converted so far. In a speech in January this year, Mr Gove said that there had been an "outpouring of desire" among academy converters to help other schools.
"The critics said we concentrated too much on extending autonomy to the powerful," the minister said. "Well, like Abraham Lincoln, I don't think you help the weak by punishing the strong. If you get it right, then by emancipating the strong you can support the weak.
"That is why I have been so delighted that so many outstanding schools have stepped forward to sponsor other schools."
As part of their funding agreements when converting to academy status, all schools have a duty to support other schools in their area, but this can mean something as small as allowing a nearby school to share a playing field.
Speaking at an Independent Academies Association conference last month, Sam Freedman, one of Mr Gove's senior policy advisers, said that the government decided against forcing schools into formal partnerships because such deals could restrict innovation.
This week, the DfE maintained that every academy supported a weaker school "in some way". "This support can be anything from sharing facilities or offering support with lesson plans right through to formal sponsorship," a spokesperson said.
But the low figures were heavily criticised by teaching unions, with the ATL stating that the "biggest weakness" in the government's academies programme was that academies were under no real obligation to sponsor underperforming schools.
"Michael Gove has never been able to give a reasonable answer to this question and the DfE has always shied away from it," said ATL general secretary Mary Bousted.
"If you're a converter academy, why would you sponsor another school if it meant that your Ofsted rating could slip as a result?" she added. "Schools are now working in an immensely competitive environment. Why would you want to threaten your Ofsted grade? Where is the incentive? It is the same as independent schools not wanting to sponsor academies."
The lack of take-up in the independent sector has been a particular sticking point for Mr Gove, and is an area that has even led to Prime Minister David Cameron holding a summit at No 10 in an attempt to coerce the country's top private schools to buy into the academies programme.
One school that has taken the step to establish a formal link with a weaker neighbour is Tollbar Academy in Grimsby, which decided to sponsor the Cleethorpes Academy when it converted.
David Hampson, chief executive overseeing both schools, said that Tollbar and its governing body felt that it was part of the school's "remit" to sponsor a weaker school. But Mr Hampson said that, while his school did not want to limit the impact it was having on its pupils to just one school, he did understand why so few schools were taking up the opportunity.
"It is something you have to consider very carefully, it is certainly a big ask," he said. "It is not just about education, it is about management and leadership. You have to be a human resources person, a finance expert - it's the whole business aspect. You have to have that entrepreneurial aptitude."
KEY ACADEMY FACTS 1,580 Schools are now academies 1,243 Schools have converted to academy status since the election, of which 578 are outstanding 37 are sponsoring 44 academies 47% of all secondary schools are academies 53% of all outstanding secondary schools are academies.
1,580 Schools are now academies
1,243 Schools have converted to academy status since the election, of which 578 are outstanding
37 are sponsoring 44 academies
47% of all secondary schools are academies
53% of all outstanding secondary schools are academies.