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.