The government’s new schools tsar has revealed his blueprint for bringing England’s 5,000 academies and free schools to heel.
In his first interview since becoming national schools commissioner (NSC), Sir David Carter told TES of plans to identify the 100 weakest academies in the country and to introduce a new hierarchical system of academy chains. He was speaking in the week that the government’s Education and Adoption Bill completed its passage through Parliament, paving the way for many more struggling schools to be turned into academies.
Under Sir David’s plan, academy chains or multi-academy trusts (MATs) will be organised into four distinct levels based on the number of schools under their control (see data, opposite). They will undergo extra scrutiny before being allowed to expand.
The biggest chains will be directly accountable to Sir David and known as “system leader trusts”. These will include the likes of Ark, the Harris Federation and Reach2, whose leaders have broadly welcomed the plan (see box, “What do academy leaders think about the new system?”).
But in future, trusts will have to pass new assessments, that Sir David will introduce, to reach the next tier.
The Welshman said that they will have to prove they have the capacity to take on more schools while continuing to “provide a high-quality education to the students they already have”.
Sir David said that he wants to bring some “rigour” into the expansion of academies. “I am really keen to think about what growth and expansion means in the system,” he told TES.
But he also indicated that he would not be operating a zero-tolerance regime when it came to problems within chains. “I want [the biggest MATs] to play a broader role than the one they play now,” Sir David said. “And as part of that, I want to work with them to understand that if one of their academy’s results wobble, or they have a negative Ofsted outcome – given they are working with some of the most challenging schools in the country – that doesn’t mean the trust is failing.”
‘Challenge to Ofsted’
His plan follows Ofsted’s focused inspections of nine MATs since 2014 – of which all but one was critical. But it could effectively mean a parallel system of accountability.
Sir David told TES that the new assessments of chains would be based on well-informed local knowledge from his regional schools commissioners, rather than on performance data and Ofsted inspections alone.
The appointment of the 54-year-old former headteacher, who had been the regional schools commissioner (RSC) for the South West of England since 2014, comes with Ofsted in a weakened position. Ministers are reported to be running out of patience with chief inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw, but began advertising for his replacement only this week – ahead of him stepping down in December.
One Department for Education insider even described the appointment of Sir David as “King David versus King Michael”.
Sir David said that his team of RSCs would come up with plans for each of the 100 weakest academies in the country and decide if extra intervention is necessary.
“I think one of the things that the national schools commissioner has to be able to do is be accountable to the secretary of state, as the RSCs are to me, around the performance of our weakest schools,” he said.
Christine Blower, general secretary of the NUT teaching union, said: “The fact that Sir David is targeting 100 academies for improvement is a clear indication that academy status does not in itself improve education, and in many cases achieves the opposite effect.”
‘Support for all’
Malcolm Trobe, interim general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, is concerned about Sir David giving a number for weak schools in advance.
“The key thing is that there should be support for all academies and for all schools that need support for whatever reason,” he said. “Putting a number on it is not something we would wholly support.”
Sir Daniel Moynihan, chief executive of the Harris Federation, also questioned Sir David’s plan for the “weakest” academies. “For me, the sponsors should be accountable for their performance,” he told TES.
“They’re the people who said that they would improve the schools, and the national schools commissioner should hold them to account. I’m sure that’s what Sir David means; that he wouldn’t want to be personally accountable for the performance of 100 schools and for what goes on in the classrooms.”
The plan comes with the government moving steadily towards an all-academy system, as it gains new powers to convert inadequate and coasting schools.
Mary Bousted, general secretary of the ATL teaching union, said that it was “welcome” that Sir David had made a “formal acknowledgement that academies can vary greatly in their quality”.
But she added: “As local authorities’ ability to support schools diminishes and if all schools become academies, can anyone really believe this is a sufficiently robust structure to monitor and act when academies start to fail?”
For more from our exclusive interview with Sir David Carter, see page 26. And for more on the dangers of MAT expansion, see page 21.
The Carter plan
The new national schools commissioner’s four-tier academy and multi-academy trust (MAT) system:
Starter trusts made up of
schools in one region
Established trusts made up of between five to 15
schools in a single region
National trusts made up of between
15 to 30
schools across regions
System leader trusts made up of
schools across the country
What do academy chain leaders think about the new system?
Lucy Heller, chief executive of Ark academy chain
“I’m very happy with [the new tiered MAT system]. Clearly one of the issues in scaling up of academies has been capacity; there are groups that have grown too fast. So I think this is a good idea.
“The only thing that I would worry about is a tendency to go to a kind of tick-box culture rather than taking a qualitative judgement, which is more difficult.
“I think [direct accountability to Sir David] is terrific, it’s what I’ve long wanted. It makes sense for nationally based groups to be able to have one conversation.”
Sir Daniel Moynihan, chief executive of the Harris Federation
“We know that some trusts have struggled with growth and have grown too quickly – that is undeniable and that really shouldn’t have happened.
“If an intelligent look is going to be taken at sponsors to see whether they’re ready for the next stage, then that seems to be a good thing.
“As long as what’s being suggested isn’t going to be a bureaucratic tick-box exercise – and knowing David Carter it probably won’t be – it should be straightforward to make a judgement on the current performance of any potential sponsors.
“I think it may be that some of the reports we’ve seen from Ofsted about others may not have occurred [had this system been in place]. It might be that standards might have been better had those processes been in place and there had been more rigorous checks.”
Ian Comfort, chief executive of the Academies Enterprise Trust
(England’s biggest academy chain, which was stopped from expanding following concerns over standards)
“In hindsight, if I were to look back, AET would have welcomed [the new pre-expansion checks] at the beginning. I don’t think that it’s about stopping chains growing too rapidly – it’s about ensuring that as they grow they have the capacity to take on more schools, ensuring that they’ve built the infrastructure to deal with that growth.”
Sir Steve Lancashire, chief executive of Reach2
“Sir David Carter’s proposed new model of system leadership across the major academy trusts is a hugely positive step forward towards building capacity and creating a robust system that is fully able to address the challenges facing our sector.
“Collaboration is a word that is often trotted out in education. But all too often, while high on intent, it falls short in delivery. How many of us can, hand on heart, say that we are working together to tackle the recruitment challenges facing us all?
“Sir David’s planned system leadership model will mean that we can genuinely collaborate on some of the toughest issues facing us.”