Narrowing the gap
In their evidence, KCC responded to seven questions, the first relating to narrowing the achievement gap for disadvantaged pupils, one of the government’s key priorities. KCC considers there is no evidence of a narrowing of the gap by academies of any type, either at primary or secondary level. However, it expresses concern in a fall of 12.5% of take up of Free School Meals in sponsored academies nationally compared with the schools they replaced, which may explain the increase in achievement of some . It quotes the statistic that there is no overall increase in GCSE grades at academies as compared to maintained schools, the main driver for improvement being good leadership rather than status.
Establishing academies and new Free Schools
In answer to a question about the process for establishing academies and free schools, KCC observes that it works hard to bring about a successful outcome, but is too often hindered by unhelpful sponsors, causing delays and bring additional costs to fall upon the Council. It refers to the five Free Schools open in Kent. All are in areas of socio-economic advantage, rather than growing diversity and choice in disadvantaged areas of need. The council considers that 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. Unfortunately, it conveniently forgets that one of these, the Wells Free School, a primary in Tunbridge Wells, was built with the full support of KCC, and doesn’t mention the further five new Free Schools it has commissioned to meet strategic need for primary school places, all being in areas of socio-economic advantage.
Improving failing or underachieving academies
The document is highly critical of the DfE’s actions in improving failing or underachieving academies. It highlights the history of the Marlowe Academy, described in several previous articles on this website. “It has been the subject of an Ofsted Failing Category twice and to date, the principal sponsor remains (Government is reported to have tried to force him out in 2011) and the Academy Trust do 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 a Pre-Warning Notice was issued in 2012 before a temporary improvement in results negated it. The document could equally have explored Tree Tops Academy and Molehill Copse Primary School, two academies sponsored by the controversial Academies Enterprise Trust, the subject of another recent article.
KCC complains that where it has concerns about academies the Local Authority has no powers to improve them, a complaint that would have more validity if Kent’s own record in improving schools were stronger. Since September, KCC has had eight primary schools fail OFSTED, with three more being primary academies, significantly above the national average. Since September 16 Inspections have seen an improved grade, more than matched by the 17 which have declined – so no overall improvement. 26 primary schools have been graded Good or Outstanding, under half of the total at 46%, running even lower than last year’s disappointing 56%.
Tension between accountability and autonomy
In a highly evocative phrase, the document looks at “the potential atomisation and fragmentation of the education system and its serious risks to the future of vulnerable children, those with special needs and those excluded from school”.
It provides a quote from the Head of Education Analysis for the OECD: “School autonomy is a good thing if it is within a system that allows cooperation and support for weak schools. School autonomy also needs to exist within a system of strong, external accountability. If autonomy leads to a free for all, then the school system fragment, the difference in outcomes between schools grows and standards fall overall”. Sounds like a prescient forecast of the developing scenario in English school ‘organisation’ and the growing polarisation amongst English schools. Too bad if your child is in a school at the bottom of the heap.
It is rightly very concerned about the limitations on the authority of Councils to carry out their legal responsibility for the education of all children, without the powers to intervene in academies. As academy numbers continue to grow, government is exploring a possible regional structure to manage the schools, which in one sense would compete with Local Authorities, but without the expertise that many have built up.
I try to keep up with the development of academy groups that are involved with Kent academies, on this webpage but it changes so rapidly I often have to depend on browsers to inform me of latest news. There is an enormous spectrum of scale, structure, philosophy and competence outlined on the page. In Kent, they range from the Village Academy – a Federation of five small East Kent rural primary schools, to the behemoths such as Academies Enterprise Trust and Oasis Community Learning.
There is no local accountability for the large chains, controlled remotely to Kent but carrying a formal accountability to the Department of Education, although it is difficult to see how this operates. Some operate vast budgets generated from the incomes of their individual academies, employing highly paid executives, some using associated commercial companies to provide services, the funds often being maximised partly by using economies of scale or, as reports would have it, just economies in the individual academies.
KCC notes that these chains will be inspected by OFSTED at some time in the future, hopefully providing a real accountability at last. From the number of scandals exposed by the Anti-Academies Alliance, it is urgently needed.
The document expresses doubts about the wisdom of primary schools becoming academies, 75 having opened or on the way, out of a current total of 449 primary schools in Kent. The majority of primary academies are sponsored by chains or more successful schools, having underperformed in achievement tables or at OFSTED inspections. Certainly, such schools have a very mixed record of subsequent success, high profile failures such as Tree Tops, Molehill Copse, the Thanet schools run by TKAT - a Bromley chain, Westlands Primary run by the Swale Academies Trust. Set against this, KCC has seen 21 of its own schools fail OFSTED in the past 18 months. However, other highly successful schools, one thinks for example of Amherst Juniors in Sevenoaks, have chosen to go their own way and will probably be very successful, due to excellent leadership.
My own view, scarcely original, is that a school succeeds through the quality of its leadership, rather than its status as an academy, free school or maintained school. My current nomination for best performing school in Kent is the John Wallis CofE Academy in Ashford and I have recently published an article explaining my reasons.
The big advantage the early academies had of being able to attract the best heads and leaders away from maintained schools has paid off again at John Wallis. However,others trying to follow this lead in Kent and Medway have come a big cropper, with several academies including the Marlowe Academy and Bishop of Rochester Academy getting rid of at least three heads each in their short existence!
This is the most negative analysis of the academy and free school programme I have seen coming out of KCC, and in stark contrast to several positive presentations from KCC officers I attended just a few years ago. As KCC explains, the financial advantages of becoming an academy are fading, although there is no way back for any who belatedly discover this. However, there are still too many primary schools run by KCC that are failing OFSTED inspections, to provide convincing evidence that it is up to the job of providing appropriate support for those of its schools that need it. Instead it is forced to merely assert it is capable of doing so.
None of this should take from the powerful evidence presented here that the academy and free school programme is NOT the route to improving standards, leaving the crucial question: what is the best way to do so? Sadly, this paper does not provide a convincing answer to the question.