Knowsley education authority is used to finding itself at the bottom of the key stage 4 performance tables, and government ministers have gone out of their way to criticise it for “lagging behind”.
But this week, fascinating new league tables show that the council has been beaten to the bottom spot – by a multi-academy trust (MAT).
College Academies Trust in Stoke-on-Trent is in the unenviable position of languishing at the bottom of rankings produced by the Education Policy Institute (EPI) – formerly known as CentreForum. The research has, for the first time, placed local authorities and MATs in the same league table.
The study compares the improvement and value-added scores for schools in MATs and local authorities and only covers academy chains with five or more schools at primary level and three or more at secondary level.
The fact that a MAT comes bottom for key stage 4 on these measures might be welcome news to anti-academy campaigners. And they would be interested to see another MAT, the Education Fellowship Trust, sitting at the bottom of the key stage 2 table, too. But the picture painted by the study is a complex one.
In fact, those on both sides of the academies debate will find something to encourage them in the report – which reveals that academy chains make up some of the best, as well as some of the worst, providers in the country.
Overall, the EPI analysis shows six out of the top 20 school providers at secondary level are academy trusts. Conversely, they make up nine of the 20 worst providers.
The study also reveals that MATs are over-represented in both the top and bottom of the rankings at primary level. Of the top 30 primary school groups, 12 are MATs, while nine out of the bottom 23 are academy chains.
In light of the research, the EPI has called for a shake-up of the academies programme and warned the government against pursuing plans to force every school to become an academy, adding that the league table shows conversion is not a “panacea”.
Jon Andrews, the author of the report and a former Department for Education civil servant, said the government should focus less on school types and more on how to improve all schools. “At secondary level, the top-performing school groups have delivered improvements that are on average five GCSE grades higher for pupils across their subjects than the lowest-performing school groups,” he added. “Government policy should focus on tackling underperformance – whether that is within local authorities or within MATs – to ensure all pupils go to a good school.”
David Laws, executive chairman of the EPI, suggested that the data was so problematic for the government’s academies policy that Conservative ministers prevented him from publishing a similar comparative table last year when he was serving as the Liberal Democrat schools minister.
“The DfE was very sensitive in March 2015 about allowing people to compare [MATs with local authority schools],” Mr Laws said. “This whole area has suffered through a lack of transparency, an ideological drive and an unwillingness to shed a spotlight on it.”
The study coincides with a separate report by social mobility charity the Sutton Trust, which shows that one in five established sponsored academy chains is performing “substantially below” the national average for attainment and improvement for disadvantaged pupils (see box, below left).
Back in May, ministers rowed back on their White Paper pledge to force every school to become an academy, but they have stated that it remains their intention to establish a “fully academised” system.
And although education policy is still “paralysed” following the EU referendum result, under the proposed Education for All Bill the government aims to convert local authority-run schools into academies.
Education secretary Nicky Morgan has said that all schools within a local authority will be converted to academy status if a proportion are deemed to be “underperforming”, or if a “critical mass” of academies within that area has been reached.
Mr Laws said the EPI research showed that the government should enable high-performing local authorities, such as Barnet and Kensington and Chelsea, to set up their own “quasi-multi-academy trusts”.
Mary Bousted, general secretary of the ATL teaching union, said that plans for mass academisation were now “dead in the water” after the Brexit decision. She argued that the government should listen to the EPI report and leave schools to make their own decisions as to whether they converted.
“This report shows there are excellent academy schools and local authority schools,” Dr Bousted said. “I don’t think the government knows what it is going to do at the moment, but they should just leave schools well alone. If a school wants to join a MAT because it is right for them then they should let them choose to. Forcing things will not help.”
Sarah Robinson, chief executive of the College Academies Trust, stressed that inspectors has “recognised the vision and strong leadership” that the trust had put in place. A “step change in performance is forecast in 2016” she said.
At the time of writing, the Department for Education could not provide a response.
‘Substantially below’ average
One in five established sponsored academy chains is performing “substantially below” the national average for attainment and improvement for disadvantaged pupils, according to Sutton Trust research.
Eight out of 39 academy sponsors are failing to provide their poorest students with a decent standard of education, it says.
The social mobility charity’s second Chain Effects report finds that there continues to be significant variation in outcomes for disadvantaged pupils at academies, both between and within chains.
Chains that have the most success with disadvantaged pupils also tend to be successful with their more affluent pupils, while less successful chains tend to have poor results for both groups, the report adds.
The charity is calling for a more rigorous approach to appointing sponsors and increased efforts to improve existing academy chains.