The government’s announcement that schools whose performance has flat-lined will be forced to take sponsored academy status has re-ignited debate about whether academisation is a sufficient answer to the challenges of school improvement.
While there’s convincing international evidence indicating that greater autonomy in the governance and management of local schools has beneficial effects for educational outcomes irrespective of where they are in the school improvement journey, where academisation refers to an intervention strategy for effecting the turnaround of failing schools, judgement of its efficacy is more difficult. Here, academisation involves both forcing a change of governance (and subsequently leadership and management), and an extension of school leaders’ autonomy and it’s difficult to disaggregate the effects of these different elements.
Research indicates that a radical change to governance, leadership and staff is the only way to bring about significant improvement in such circumstances. They key question is whether the current brokering system is the way to attract the calibre of sponsors required, and match them with the right schools. The sheer numbers of schools involved, the strictures on the type of organisation that may apply, and the terms on which they must operate, have meant that commissioners have had to enlist the help of those that under more competitive conditions would not qualify for entry to the market – on the basis of a judgement about the transferability of skills and experience, rather than track record in school improvement. Once admitted to the framework, the responsibility for informing decisions as to which sponsor is best suited to meeting an identified need in context lies heavily with individual brokers, who can only be fully appraised of the capability of a small sample of the available providers. It is unsurprising that we have seen many of these efforts fail. Open tendering or parent-demand-led supply are alternative frameworks that could be engineered to circumvent these problems.
Beyond the manner of the intervention, there is good research to suggest that once up and running, sponsored academies perform better than similar non-academy schools, and (separately) that this translates to accelerated improvement in GCSE results. Other research indicates that being part of a sponsored academy chain (as compared to pairs and stand-alones), over time, has an overall positive effect for pupil attainment – by adding capacity and capability in both leadership and teaching. Still more significantly, a study considering the effect of joining a federation found that that schools that are part of ‘performance’ and academy federations (those most rigorously purposed to raising attainment), especially those involving the legal merger and integration of governance and leadership structures (as in Multi-Academy Trusts) consistently and increasingly outperform comparator schools once fully operational. All of which suggests that intentionality and a preparedness to reform structures to re-align systems with outcomes, are important for effecting turnaround, and offers some support for the government’s stress on the importance of formal federation in the academisation process for failing schools.
What is unclear is the extent to which schools whose performance has plateaued should be approached in the same way. It may be, for example, that following a notice period a requirement to partner with a level of discretion as to the form it should take, and with whom, is sufficient. A 2014 NAO report on the efficacy of the academisation strategy suggested that even among failing schools takeover may not be necessary. The report found that since 2010, 59% of schools designated ‘failing’ that did not receive any formal intervention had improved anyway (compared to just 48% that did) – most often with help from a partner engaged independently of government. Relevant academic research strongly suggests that a negative inspection judgement may prompt or accelerate actions to improve student performance, even where no external interventions are made.
Of course, it may be that the government choose only to effect formal intervention in the most seriously failing institutions, for whom the prospect of intervention would be insufficient to induce governors to take necessary steps to secure improvement. If this were the case, then one would expect the challenge for those schools taken on by sponsors to be all the greater. Regardless, the implication of the above research is that for schools judged by Ofsted to be ‘requiring improvement’ (roughly those referred to as the ‘coasters’) a less heavily interventionist approach might suffice, if (and it’s a big ‘if’) the government were prepared to work even harder to secure the conditions for a more competitive school market.
That means, among many other things, re-joined efforts towards more dynamic new school supply and even greater exposure of under-performing schools to the financial consequences of declining rolls. Essentially it’s this or the aggressive interventionist policy presently being pursued by the government. What we must recognise above all though is that so long as the hegemony of the default local school remains unchallenged, the implicit response from policymakers and school leaders alike to parents who aren’t satisfied with ‘fair to middling’ will remain ‘take it or leave it’. And that’s unacceptable.
James Croft is Director of the Centre for the Study of Market Reform of Education.