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'Where is the monitoring and support from the DfE before academies fail?'

Steven Pleasant, chief executive of Tameside Metropolitan Borough Council, writes:

On Wednesday, Ofsted chief inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw published his third annual report and, once again, the fundamental issue of the distinction between the performance of local-authority-maintained schools and that of academies was repeatedly ignored.

The key headline in his report on schools is that the overall proportion of secondary schools that are good or outstanding remains unchanged from last year, at 71 per cent. The report goes on to say that there are 13 local authorities in England where children have a less than 50 per cent chance of attending a good or outstanding school. My local authority, Tameside, is identified as one such.

While it is not for me to comment in any way on the position of other authorities, the fact remains that local-authority-maintained schools are accountable to the director of children’s services and the council’s executive member for education. Academies are accountable to the Department for Education through the schools commissioner. Why, then, is this accountability not reflected in Sir Michael’s report? Local authorities are named and shamed for the underperformance of all schools in their area, regardless of status.

Tameside is an interesting case in point. Of its 15 secondary schools, eight are local-authority-maintained and seven are academies (a mix of converter and sponsored institutions). Governance arrangements, however, are of no consequence: these are all Tameside schools serving the needs of Tameside children and families, and it is right and proper that we should be concerned about the quality of education across the whole of our area, as Ofsted makes clear in its guidance to local authorities.

Of course we agree with Sir Michael that strong leadership is the key to a good education, and that has been amply demonstrated by the headteachers and governing bodies of all those local-authority-maintained schools that have improved their Ofsted grading in the past 12 months. Of the few that are not yet good, we are optimistic about their prospects and we will continue to provide the monitoring and support that has been a feature of our work with them over the past year.

Nonetheless, it is still the case that just 37 per cent of secondary pupils in the borough attend an academy which is good or outstanding and, while we enjoy positive relationships with our academies on a personal and professional level, our day-to-day involvement is significantly less than that in maintained schools. This means that our ability to gauge progress (or not) is limited: academies are, at the end of the day, not accountable to us. So where we can implement the DfE’s own guidance to local authorities on “schools causing concern”, there appear to be separate rules for academies in difficulty.

One of the cornerstones of the academies programme was to enable schools to manage and determine how they deployed their resources to spark improvement, free from the local authority. There is no doubt that some academies have managed this remarkably well, with innovative curricula and inspirational leadership. However, it cannot be argued that this is the case in all academies nationally. And, even when they have been active in seeking professional support from a variety of sources, this has not had an impact, nor has it been quality-assured.

Some academies have most certainly become isolated, leading to a sharp fall in performance, with support and challenge arriving too late. Where is the monitoring and support from the DfE before academies arrive at this position? Equally concerning, why is there not rapid action once the decline has been identified? Local authorities are repeatedly reminded that the route to school improvement is via academisation. Unfortunately, this has not been proven in every case, but the government has seemingly become obsessed with numbers of academies as opposed to the quality of education they provide – at least, that is how it appears to us.

The government has made it abundantly clear that the remit of local authorities for school improvement applies only to maintained schools, yet it has singularly failed to provide alternative mechanisms that secure swift and decisive action for academies.

Each year, Sir Michael will judge Tameside and other authorities on the performance of all schools in their area. It is clearly not equitable to judge local authorities on the performance of institutions over which they have no control. Either the DfE needs to work much more closely with local authorities in true partnership to ensure the necessary interventions are timely and effective, or public accountability for academies needs to be made clear in Sir Michael’s report next year.

School commissioners have been appointed with teams to support them. They have huge regional areas to cover and, in some cases, in excess of 400 academies to monitor and hold to account. They have a considerable task and we are more than willing to forge the strong partnership that is required.

Related links:

Ofsted takes aim at 'worrying lack of scholarship'

'Wilshaw's pessimism and headline-grabbing instincts paint us as both hapless and hopeless'

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