The report of the Pearson/RSA Academies Commission has been published. I was one of the commissioners and – as I have blogged before – the Commission provided a fascinating opportunity to look closely at the English school system changing at phenomenal speed. In May 2010 there were just over 200 academies; at the beginning of 2013 there are over 2000. Every local authority has at least one and in some local authorities, as far apart as North East Lincolnshire and Southwark, all secondary schools are now academies. As initial responses to the report indicated, academies have not lost their power to excite strong views from both advocates and critics. The Commission tried to get beyond the noise of proponents and opponents to ask hard questions about the dynamics of an academised school system,
Over eight months, and taking evidence in writing and orally from across the education system, the Commissioners sifted responses to try to consider the implications of academisation for school improvement, school autonomy, admissions, system development, governance and accountability. The Commissioners were agreed that academisation has enormous, transformative potential – academies have indeed injected vitality into schools. But the Commissioners also agreed that academisation – the extension of school autonomy alone – will not be transformative and those who argue that it will be are wrong.
Months of listening, and weeks of report drafting, of course, lead up to a single publication date, and, at the beginning of 2013, publication lands in the middle of a noisy, crowded landscape of social media, press releases and news briefings. It should be no surprise to anyone that an academic will be disappointed at the way work is reported, but I was taken aback by the ability of twitterers to summarise our 120 pages of report in 140 characters in a matter of hours, or even minutes, of the report’s appearance.
In fact, most of those who commented tended to see the Academies Commission report as a mirror, finding in it more of less what they wanted to find. We do say, and we did find, that we were hugely impressed not only by the energy, commitment and moral purpose of most academy head teachers and academy group chief executives, but also by their success in cutting through deeply entrenched local barriers to improving aspirations and provision. We also heard evidence suggesting real concerns about provision for vulnerable children, local accountability to parents and arrangements for appeals against academy decisions. We heard evidence, often from school governors themselves, to suggest that academy governing bodies are often ill-equipped for the role which governing an academy – effectively making governors non-executive directors – involves.
Some academy groups and federations impressed us with their vision and their grasp of the reality of school improvement, but others left us apprehensive about their ability to provide a strong co-ordination role over geographically scattered groups. This is a report which is thorough and balanced, posing challenges at every level for schools, academy groups, local authorities, government agencies and central government. It would be a huge pity if its recommendations and challenges were lost in the noise of its publication.
One of the real treats of the launch was that Andreas Schleicher, from the OECD, joined us, both for the public launch and for a subsequent academic seminar. Andreas was able to put the report into an international context. The world’s best school systems are those with high levels of school autonomy. But as Andreas pointed out, some of the world’s worst school systems are those with high levels of school autonomy. Autonomy delivers quality only where independence is accompanied by an incentive system and a culture which embeds collaboration and so engenders school inter-dependence.
In a striking phrase at the launch, Andreas said, “knowledge in education is sticky” – it does not move around the system. The challenge posed by the Academies Commission is how an autonomous school system can build knowledge about success. We will not achieve the vision success for all if academisation simply produced archipelagos of excellence. One of the report’s recommendations is that no school should be eligible for an Ofsted “outstanding” rating for leadership unless it can demonstrate success in helping other schools to improve. This, at least, would incentivise collaboration.
School are working in a rapidly changing context. Academies – and the academisation of the school system – are with us. The challenge now is to realise the quite proper aspirations for transformation. Meeting the challenges for schools, for system leaders and for policy makers will involve more than using the report as a mirror and will involve serious engagement with inter-locking recommendations.
There is one thing we can all agree on about “academisation”. What an awful word! Otherwise there are few more controversial aspects of English education policy than academy status. The RSA/Pearson Commission on Academies, of which I am a member, wants to understand the implications of the rapid development of academies and to crystal ball gaze the future of an education system which is substantially academised. Chaired by former Ofsted Chief Inspector Christine Gilbert, the commission is taking evidence from a wide range of people, including head teachers, teachers, teacher unions, policymakers, politicians, academy group executives and parents.
The Commission is not asking whether “academisation” is a good or bad thing in itself, nor to address definitively the complex relationship between academy status and performance; instead, we are trying to understand what the dynamics of a substantially academised sector might be.
That brings us face to face with challenging issues of educational and social policy. If schools are increasingly operating outside a local governance framework, who should exercise control over school place planning? At an extreme, if academies are able to decline to grow in the face of local demographic pressure, then the remaining local authority schools face the prospect of potential over-crowding. There are concerns about accountability and about the governance and management of admissions, particularly the admission and exclusion of vulnerable children.
One of the Commission’s major challenges is to recognise that academies have changed and developed since their introduction:
1. The first City Academy opened in 2002: Business Academy, Bexley was one of a new generation of schools intended to transform performance in areas of profound social and educational challenge. The model was clear: new schools were established by business sponsors outside the structures of the local authority and in radically transformed buildings. These new academies were strategic investments in change, with freedoms to vary the curriculum, school year and staff conditions of service.
2. Over the next eight years, New Labour rolled academies out across the country. In the process, the original model (Academies Mark I), in which the vision of a single (often self-made) business partner drove the school, gave way to Academies Mark II, in which corporations, universities, charities, and, in some cases, local authorities themselves acted as sponsors. By May 2010 there were 203 academies, including every secondary in the London Borough of Southwark. These schools were self-governing under a funding agreement directly with the Secretary of State. Some – including the widely cited Mossbourne Academy in Hackney – demonstrated stunning success.
3. After the 2010 election came Academies Mark III. The 2010 Academies Act opened the status to all schools rated outstanding and good by Ofsted on a single vote of the governing body. Some 40% of all secondary schools are now academies, though as Machin and Vernoitt observed, schools applying to convert following the 2010 Act were “significantly more advantaged than the average secondary schools”.
This is the context against which the Academies Commission is working: a substantially “academised” secondary sector and developments towards academy status in primary schools The idea of an academy is now complex.
4. To the first three types there has now been added Mark IV — “enforced converters” who have repeatedly failed to meet floor targets or have had weak inspection reports. There are, in addition, “free schools”, newly established by parent or sponsor groups but with the formal status of academies.
It’s not clear that the single term “academy” captures much about this complexity. The questions asked by the Commission will touch on profoundly held views about what schools are for and who should govern them. Such debates go to the heart of the way schools, and indeed communities, work, and the critical factors influencing the success of a school and the educational achievements of young people. Until we report in November, the Commission offers a ring-side view of an education system negotiating seismic change.