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Saturday, 08 February 2014 18:46

When schools struggle who is best placed to lead them to success: Kent on Sunday 8 February 2013

Former headteacher, Peter Read the man behind the Kent Independent Advice Service, examines a growing tension between Kent County Council and the growing number of schools opting to become Government Funded Academies

 Kent County Council (KCC) has submitted written evidence  to the Government Select Committee on Education’s inquiry into Academies and Free Schools which began on Wednesday.  It addresses concerns about both accountability and performance of academies, choosing The Marlowe Academy as an illustration. However, KCC could equally have chosen Tree Tops Academy and Molehill Copse Primary School, both run by the controversial Academies Enterprise Trust, which previously 'ran' Marlowe for a year. 

KCC's proposes that underperforming academies should revert to Local Authority accountability, but the weakness is that there is an assumption the LA is up to the job. I have written extensively on Medway Council's repeated failure to manage standards adequately, and they clearly do not have capacity to improve schools, whilst Kent is not yet a beacon of excellence. For, although it is improving, it has still too many primary schools fail OFSTED Inspections recently, all vulnerable to takeover by Academy groups (nine already on their way).  

This week’s news about the culling of sixth form courses for financial reasons whilst the Free School budget appears to have no bounds, underlines the illogical nature of current education policy, and KCC makes some very good points about the problems with Free School philosophy and implementation  .......

Much of the supplementary evidence to back up assertions in this article can be found on my website: www.kentadvice.co.uk......

KCC’s evidence leads with one of the government's most laudable education priorities, to reduce the achievement  gap for disadvantaged pupils. KCC demolishes the government claim that academies are leading the way here, citing evidence showing there is no narrowing of the achievement gap by academies. Further, it expresses concern about a fall of 12.5% of take up of Free School Meals in sponsored academies nationally compared with the schools they replaced, as some of those academies chase pupils who will improve their performance.

The document provides evidence showing there is no overall increase in GCSE grades at academies as compared to maintained schools, and looking at the recent Kent GCSE results, this is easy to believe, with nine of the twelve lowest performing schools being sponsored academies, the lowest also an academy - Castle Community College.  

As the evidence records: "In terms of overall pupil achievement, recent research has found that there is no direct correlation between being an academy and improved attainment levels, reflected in Ofsted judgements. The critical characteristic to raising attainment in a school is the individual capacity of the school leadership. Many sponsored academies are improving the quality of education and pupil outcomes, as they have often replaced very poorly performing schools". However, the end of this paragraph sadly comes close to demolishing the argument put forward by KCC, as these "very poorly performing schools" were previously run by Local Authorities such as Kent. A classic example is Wilmington Academy that, in its previous incarnation, was a KCC school in Special Measures. Four years later, under outstanding leadership, it is one of Kent's top performing non-selective schools.

The document is critical of the Department for Education's actions in improving failing or underachieving academies and rightly expresses concerns about the accountability of academies and Free Schools . It highlights the history of the Marlowe Academy, described in several articles on my own website: "It has been the subject of an OFSTED  Category (failing) twice and to date, the principal sponsor remains (Government is reported to have tried to force him out in 2011) and the Academy Trust does not appear to have been transparently held to account by the Secretary of State.  No Warning Notice has been served on this Academy Trust to date”. In fact the Academy was told in a pre-warning notice in 2012  that GCSE standards were unacceptably low. This year, after the academy finished 21st  worst school in the country, the headteacher left suddenly mid-term, and one has to wonder what further action government will now take.

Government still considers that: "Where local authorities fail to use their powers effectively (to improve maintained schools), the Secretary of State will exercise his powers with a view to ensuring that standards improve, which is likely to result in an academy solution for the school". However, there is no reverse process and KCC complains that where it has concerns about academies, the Authority has no powers to improve them, and government mechanisms appear too weak to bring about change.

KCC warns that the academy programme will bring about “the potential atomisation and fragmentation of the education system” with its serious risks to the future of vulnerable children, those with special needs and those excluded from school. Meanwhile, Government is trying to come to terms with the rapid increase in academies all controlled by central government, and is exploring what would be a new bureaucratic regional area management. This may look disturbingly like its LA predecessor but without local input.  

Whilst this article is critical, there are many examples of highly successful academies and academy trusts in Kent; all marked out by outstanding leadership, the key factor in a successful school of any type.

Turning to Free Schools, Kent County Council's evidence refers to the five now open in Kent: "All are in areas of socio-economic advantage, rather than growing diversity and choice in disadvantaged areas of need.  There appears to be ‘middle class capture’ of the Free Schools process, in order to create new capacity in areas that do not necessarily need school places". Perhaps for this reason, all the current Kent free schools are flourishing, as distinct from some other parts of the country; where too many are wacky, some corrupt, some unnecessary and failing to attract pupils, and some already failing.  The document forgets to mention the additional five new Free Schools that KCC has commissioned to meet strategic need for additional places, all in areas of socio-economic advantage, although it could have encouraged academies instead (Government no longer allows LAs  to build their own schools).

My simplistic conclusion: most good schools thrive irrespective of their status and circumstances; its the leadership that matters! 

Last modified on Saturday, 08 February 2014 22:13

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