Wednesday 20 April 2016

Getting it right on academies

Today's exchanges at Prime Minister's Questions on academies were undoubtedly a victory for a Labour leader who has too often struggled at the weekly Commons joust. But they did little to enlighten those who watched them on the strengths and weaknesses of academies - nor did we get a convincing reason why ministers want to force all schools to adopt their legal structure.

As one who was there at the birth of academies, I have been a longstanding supporter of their original concept - a radical shift in the governance of failing schools particularly to improve standards for disadvantaged pupils. But I have had no problem either with some of the changes since 2010 - it made sense to extend them to failing primaries,something I argued on this blog in the past; and I am a director of a multi-academy trust having been a governor of the successful school which helped create it, using the freedoms given to us by academy status.

It is because of my commitment to the original idea of academies that I was so keen that the Sutton Trust commissioned the now annual Chain Effects reports. Accountability and transparency have to be central to a policy founded on independence, and before Chain Effects in 2014 there were no such comparisons across established secondary chains. Since then, the DFE has published its own tables and Ofsted has started to produce reports on chains, although its powers to do so need strengthening in any future legislation.

Chain Effects has shown a mixed picture, though reading some of the comments by opponents of academies one might imagine it to damn all academies. It focuses on attainment and improvement for disadvantaged pupils, on the grounds that if academies are to succeed, they must be able to do at least as well as schools generally in enabling their poorest students to get good GCSE results.

On the positive side, the 2015 report showed that this is happening in around a third of the chains examined. Some, including Ark, City of London and Harris – three chains that have been part of the academies programme almost since the start – were dramatically transforming the prospects of their disadvantaged pupils, with results well above the national average. Others that were clearly making a difference include the Outwood Grange academies in Yorkshire and the Mercers’ academies based on the Thomas Telford model. Around half of chains bettered the national average improvement for poorer pupils, six out of 34 significantly. But many others are middling or worse, and their performance raises important questions about how the programme is run and how it might move in the future.

When I blogged about Chain Effects last year, I suggested some reasons why this might be so. After all, early research by Steve Machin on the sponsored academies had been more positive. One reason was the pace of change. By 2010, there was a target of 400 academies with nearly 300 ready to open. Now there are 1600 sponsored academies and 3,700 converters, representing two thirds of secondaries and one sixth of primaries. And one reason for the success of the earliest academies was that the troubleshooting capacity of the education department and Andrew Adonis’s detailed project management, from No.10 initially and later as a minister, ensured that the crises that have affected so many chains recently were addressed quickly. But it was far easier to ensure the smooth opening of new academies when the numbers created each year were in the tens rather than the hundreds. The focus was on getting it right much more so than getting the numbers up.

After 2010, attention was initially directed at converting successful schools to academies. I supported giving them the right to do so at the time, and still do, but combined with the drive for free schools it created a capacity issue in the department that has never been adequately addressed since. There was also a real failure to insist that converters became system leaders in return for the £250,000 extra (money that local authorities ostensibly spent on their behalf) that they received in their budgets to sweeten the changes.

Now we have the latest phase of the policy. In some ways, it reminds me of how Charles Clarke moved from early scepticism about specialist schools to what would become an evangelical zeal for them as education secretary, so much so that he wanted all secondaries to become one. It turned a policy that had been achieving improvements into one that lacked differentiation and was killed off by Michael Gove in 2010, undermining an organisation that could have helped deliver mass academisation in a collaborative way in the process.

The truth is that there is no demand for forcing good schools to become academies, and there is no evidence that it will lift standards. Before the White Paper, a lot of  multi-academy trusts (MATs) had been emerging organically, often geographically based. They can play a valuable role creating economies of scale, through shared leadership and back office functions - indeed, those village schools causing Tory backbenchers to fret would be better protected in MATs with a shared head than they are now. But, while MATs can expand subject choice or improve professional development, the evidence that converting good schools to academies raises their standards is not there.

The danger of the compulsion policy is that, at a time when too many trusts are not adding value, the DFE loses focus on the failing schools, as they did in the early years of the coalition, as officials spend their time smoothing the legalities of conversions. Only this time the converters are not always going to be choosing their own fate. The weaker schools where academy status could improve their results will be the losers, as will their pupils, not least the poorest ones.

So what should ministers do now that they've announced all this, given that it is unlikely either the PM or Chancellor will want to drop the policy entirely? First, they need some tactical retreats. There is no good reason to remove the requirement of continuing parent governors, and that should be dropped. Of course, MAT boards and governing bodies need experienced directors, but they and their governing bodies need a voice of parents too. The second change they should make is to allow local authorities to create trusts with local partners to oversee academies at a sub-county or borough level, grouping perhaps a dozen primaries and a couple of secondaries together. Of course, local authorities shouldn't have majority control of the trusts any more than they do governing bodies now, but their involvement would help smooth the process where good schools are coming together. And third, the government should incentivise the change rather than mandate it, and quietly drop the wholly arbitrary 2022 deadline which makes it feel as if there is a gun to schools' heads. At some stage, a tipping point will emerge in any case if they get the incentives right.

But even that will not be enough. It still leaves the more prosaic problem of what to do with the 'middle tier' as local authorities lose their role in school standards. David Blunkett provided some good answers on that score in 2014, and the government would do well to dust them down. They should expand the number of regional school commissioners and introduce a board with local government as well as school representatives to improve accountability. And - unless they want to spend the next five years in the courts battling councils - they should leave land in trust locally.

And then they need to leave it to schools to come together in trusts themselves, helped by the legal conversion money provided by the government. DFE officials and particularly regional commissioners should focus where they can and should make a difference - on failing and coasting schools. Meanwhile, they should have a full independent evaluation of what works and what doesn't with MATs. And perhaps we could also hear no more daft statistics like the one repeated by the PM today about 88% of converters being good or outstanding, ignoring the fact that being so was a prerequisite of conversion at the start.

The tragedy of this issue is that there is a lot that is good and sensible in the white paper, where this plan provided its most toxic chapter. Ministers should allow themselves the space to advance those ideas, which can improve teaching, leadership and standards.  And there are also real issues ahead as the exam and accountability system is overhauled and detail is added to the national funding formula which very soon will require real attention from the top. Unless they address the academies issue quickly, they may soon find themselves overwhelmed.

Friday 15 April 2016

Selective primaries

I've written this blog for the Sutton Trust website on primary school admissons.

On Monday, hundreds of thousands of parents in England will learn whether or not they have secured a place for their children at their preferred primary school. For many, that will be their nearest primary; for others it may be faith-based schools. For some, there may not even be places as the demographic birth bulge continues to impact on school place planning at a time when all new schools have to be free schools.

But behind the excitement and despair of National Offer Day there is a second story at play. The issue is not just one of school choice but also of educational inequality. Primary schools, even more than secondary schools, are already the subject of social selection, with distance from schools even more important with fewer recruits each year. Selection by house price is an inevitable – and probably unchangeable – aspect of a system where we rightly place a premium on being able to walk to school and minimise the dreaded school run.

Yet that’s not the whole story. There has been a lot written about admissions policies to secondary schools. Debate still rages about grammar schools, while Sutton Trust research has shown that many successful comprehensives could be regarded as socially selective. Rather less has been said about primary school admissions policies, yet the choices made at age five can impact on social mobility as much – if not more – than those made at age eleven.

Until today, that is. In an important new analysis for the Sutton Trust, Dr Rebecca Allen and her colleagues at Education Datalab have looked in detail at the data for primary school admissions and have discovered over 1500 primaries – just under one in ten – where the difference in free school meal intake is more than nine percentage points below that of the communities from which they recruit.

The pattern seems strongest in some – though not all – London boroughs and in areas outside London where there are strong faith-based, particularly Catholic, state schools. There does seem to be a higher propensity for some academies and free schools – which can vary admissions policies from the local authority – to be among the schools that come through as more socially selective.

Importantly, Dr Allen has looked not just at where this social selection is taking place but its impact on standards. So, 13% of Ofsted outstanding primary schools fit within her rigorous definition of social selectivity compared with 7% of those requiring improvement, and just 1% of those in the bottom 10% of performance in the tests at eleven are among the most socially selective, while 14% of those in the top 10% of performance are among top 10% most socially selective primaries.

So this matters to children’s life chances, especially those of poorer pupils where earlier Sutton Trust research has identified a 19 month school readiness gap. And while some education reformers dismiss admissions issues on the grounds that they’re ‘making all schools good’, the cold reality is that some primaries (just like some secondaries or universities) will always be better, and their intakes should reflect society better when the taxpayer is footing the bill.

But what do we do about it? Were we to take a coldly scientific position we might argue for a system of lotteries in primary schools, but while they have some merit as part of the admissions policies for popular urban secondaries, such an approach would be impractical in primary schools.

Instead, we need to look at how schools apply the admissions code. We make three suggestions today. The first is that schools – including faith schools – should consider prioritising pupil premium pupils ahead of others in their admissions criteria (they already do this for children in care). The second is that we need the Admissions Code to be properly enforced, particularly in parts of London where parents have been known to rent a flat close to a good school for the application process (and no longer). And finally, while we understand the wish of the Catholic and Anglican churches to maintain the ethos of their schools, we applaud those that have already decided to make a proportion of places available for those of other faiths – something required of new faith free schools.

The attention given to secondary school choices should not blind us from the impact of social selection in primaries. Today’s new report should help start a debate on how we ensure that the best state primaries are not the preserve of the better off.

Monday 11 April 2016

Back to school for governors

I wrote this essay for Public Finance Perspectives ahead of the recent education white paper. Its relevance remains strong.

The transformation of school structures over the past decade has dramatically increased the importance of good governance in schools. Yet evidence from the school inspectorate, Ofsted, and others suggests that the rapid conversion of seven in 10 secondary schools and one in six primaries into academy schools has not always been matched by the improvements one would expect in strategic leadership.

This has thrown into sharp relief the role of school governors, who historically have played the role of non-executives in an educational context. It may also help explain why the ‘academy effect’ on standards has been patchy and far from universal.

Until 2010, the vast majority of schools were maintained by their local authority. That wasn’t the whole story: a significant minority (largely faith based) were voluntary aided, while others had a greater degree of independence as foundation schools. While schools were funded through the local authority, the government dictated which budget was for schools and which was for central services. School forums, including headteachers, governors and council officials, could vary such spending locally.

By the time the coalition government took office, around 280 schools – mainly once‑failing secondaries in disadvantaged areas – had become or were becoming academies. These schools, representing fewer than one in 10 secondaries, were funded through an education funding agency, had charitable status, usually had sponsors drawn from charities or business and had greater freedoms over pay, the curriculum, admissions and building development. Most had strong governance systems.

New landscape

It is worth briefly examining what happened next, as it has created a very different school governance landscape. Former education secretary Michael Gove radically changed the academies programme. He allowed primary schools and schools rated as successful by Ofsted to take on academy status; and he rebranded new academies and all new schools as ‘free schools’.

With primary academies, the focus was on turning around failing schools. However, a lot of time and energy was also expended in supporting good secondary converters and promoting new free schools, which increasingly are the government’s answer to shortages of school places rather than the hubs of innovation originally imagined.

For many converters, it was a financial no-brainer: their £5m or £6m budgets would be increased by around £250k a year at a time when those without significant numbers of disadvantaged pupils eligible for the pupil premium were otherwise expecting to have to lay off staff.

Although the new academies were expected to support weaker schools locally, this was not a condition of approval. As a result, innovation was slower than it might have been and the Department for Education (DfE) found it hard to get enough good sponsors for the rapidly growing number of failing schools required to become academies.

The DfE promoted some big chains, ahead of local partnerships, to replace failing schools, and they expanded more rapidly than was prudent. The worst offenders were subsequently berated by Ofsted and had to surrender some of their schools. Despite these problems, the government has extended the range of schools that it expects to become academies, including those that are coasting as well as those deemed to be failing by Ofsted.

Chain reaction

The result is a programme with mixed success. The Sutton Trust looks each year at the performance of academy chains for their disadvantaged pupils – those they were originally intended to help the most. In its 2015 Chain Effects report, it found that, after being part of chains for three years, sponsored secondary academies had lower inspection grades – and were twice as likely to be below the minimum standard set for schools by the government.

Comparing this with 2013 data, the trust found that the contrast between the best and worst chains had increased in 2014. And, when analysed against a range of government indicators on attainment, a majority of the chains still underperform against the average for all secondary schools on attainment for their disadvantaged pupils.

Notwithstanding this, there are some great success stories. The Ark and Harris chains, schools sponsored by the City of London, and the Outwood Academies established by a dynamic Yorkshire headteacher, Sir Michael Wilkins, spring to mind.

Overall, the analysis suggests that chains within geographic clusters (making it easier to share resources), a strong ‘business model’ – with clarity across the chain on issues such as curriculum, teaching and data – and with growth at a manageable pace have succeeded significantly faster than schools generally. But the rest have performed at or below the national average.

The Sutton Trust focused on chains that had been in operation for at least three years, and it may be that newer chains do better. A wider analysis by the National Foundation for Education Research of sponsored and converter academies found that, although progress between the ages of 11 and 16 in sponsored academies (those replacing failing schools) is better than in local authority schools, there is no significant difference between converters and the remaining local authority schools. Moreover, the additional sponsored academy gains largely reflect a wider use of vocational qualifications that ministers have since downgraded because they believe they overinflate GCSE scores.

So, although the evidence on academy attainment is complex, the findings do give an indication of the challenging and ever-shifting context within which school governance has been operating – and the issues that school trustees, directors and governors have had to grapple with.

Multi-academy tasking

Meanwhile, another important change is happening in the system, which could have a profound impact if it works. Ministers have shifted their focus – after the embarrassments of the failing chains – away from national academy chains to local multi-academy trusts (MATs), which now include three-fifths of academies.

Typically centred around a successful local school (in the same fashion as some successful chains), they are selling it as a way both to achieve economies of scale and to drive up standards through a collaborative approach. The MAT will have a chief executive overseeing several schools, often both primary and secondary, which can share business, back office and teacher training functions. Only one in six primaries are currently academies, so ministers are particularly keen to see MATs bring small primaries together, perhaps with a single head, to increase the programme.

Yet there may be as big an issue with the governance of the new MATs as there has been with the way many of the less successful chains have been run.

In local authority schools, parents, teachers and the occasional community governor often made up the governing body, which often exceeded 15 members – there are around 300,000 school governors in England. While they had significant responsibilities, including over the budget and hiring of the head, it was a less daunting task than the role of a MAT director, whose responsibilities are closer to those of a business non-executive director or charity trustee. Increasingly, governors are expected to be recruited on talent rather than on their links to the schools.

The ‘Trojan Horse’ schools scandal in Birmingham – where governors were accused of putting their personal and religious ideology ahead of the pupils – was one of a number of issues that prompted Sir Michael Wilshaw, the schools chief inspector, to launch a review last November of the quality of school governance. He wants mandatory training for governors and MAT trustees, with payments for chairs and vice-chairs to attract more good people to the roles.

“In short, the role is so important that amateurish governance will no longer do,” he said. “Governing bodies made up of people who are not properly trained and who do not understand the importance of their role are not fit for purpose in the modern and complex educational landscape.” While the DfE has ignored the payment proposal, it says it is spending £2.4m on the recruitment and training of governors.

Fit for governance?

Whether there are enough volunteers of the right calibre to provide the required strategic governance is the key question, as the government continues its rapid academy expansion. A National Governors’ Association/TES survey last year showed that half of governors do not have a day job, and a further 20% get no time off for governance. So there is an important role here for employers in encouraging staff to become governors, something the CBI says it supports.

With the much more business-like approach of the new boards, such expertise will be vital. Equally, it will be important that board members as well as governors reflect the wider community. A 2014 analysis by the University of Bath for the National Governors’ Association showed that 96% of governors are white and many are retired.

The reality is that a fundamental shift in the structural operation of schools has not been accompanied by anything like the rigour needed to improve governance both locally and in national academy chains.

As multi-academy board members, trustees and directors are expected to be largely strategically focused on finance, trust-wide policies, leadership recruitment and pay, trust development and expansion, whereas school governors should focus much more on the academic attainment of their students, probing behind ostensibly good headline results.

MAT boards also need to be smaller, with specialist committees on audit, finance and pay that are MAT-wide. Sir Michael says governors and trustees should avoid “marginal issues” of day-to-day management that ought to be dealt with by school leaders. Multi-academy trusts may have budgets of £20m or more – school budgets total £46bn nationally – so audit responsibilities are particularly important.

As the government shifts from chains to MATs as its preferred schools delivery model, there is a big demand for senior people in the public and private sectors to take on all these roles. It remains an open question though as to whether this scale of ambition can attract the right calibre of trustees and governors – with the experience and vision needed to oversee the effective use of so much public money.