Is the Academy Model Flawed?

Last month the Richard Rose Central Academy in Carlisle was placed into special measures for a 2nd time in a little over four years… immediate response from the Carlisle NUT secretary, “It shows, first and foremost, that the academy model is flawed”!!

It is not surprising that the government seizes upon every opportunity to applaud the progress of the academies programme when faced with this kind of rash antagonism.

If there is to be a sensible debate about the progress of the academies programme then individual successes and failures should not form the basis of the debate.

The latest school league tables demonstrate that standards have been raised in sponsored academies. Whether this is as remarkable as the Department for Education have suggested is however questionable, “secondary school performance tables show that standards are rising in sponsored academies at a record rate – and more than five times as quickly than in all state-funded schools.” This assertion is based on figures that show the proportion of students reaching the five good GCSEs standard rose by 3.1 percentage points in sponsored academies, as against a national rise for state schools of 0.6 of a percentage point.

When considering these figures it is of note that sponsored academies take over failing schools, some of which have dropped to extremely low standards. It follows that such schools are critically in need of improvement and any improvement will lead to a sometimes significant rise in standards. For example, a school that has previously only achieved 30% of pupils obtaining five or more GCSEs at grade C or above ( including Maths and English) will need a 10% rise just to make the new benchmark for a school that is not failing. Comparing such improvements to a school that has consistently achieved good results amounts to manipulation of the figures and gives the false perception that non-academies are failing to keep up.

This aside, it is clear that on the whole academy sponsors are turning around the under-performing schools they take over and would suggest that imposition of sponsored academy status on failing schools is a successful, not a flawed policy. A school in decline discernibly needs change and academy status gives the impetus for the necessary changes to happen.

Is the government not right to strive towards academic improvement? Where schools are under-performing, decisive action is needed. Critics of sponsored academies will suggest that the government’s shift of the benchmark for failing schools from 35% to 40% gives the justification to accelerate the initiative to force sponsored academy status. True, the increase of the benchmark has resulted in an increase in the number or schools deemed to be failing from 107 up to 195 (which can now be targeted for sponsored academy status). But in the previous year 251 schools failed to meet the 40% mark, which is clear evidence of rising standards in schools. This in part can be attributed to the success of sponsored academies turning around the weakest schools and significantly raising attainment.

Academy status has given schools freedom to make the decisions they know will suit their pupils best and drive up standards. The government has persistently pushed this autonomy as the characteristic that will drive a rise in standards and there is much evidence to support that this is true in many cases. Clearly though, academy status alone will not guarantee school improvement. Some will be successful and some will not and it is likely that when they are not, opposition to the academies programme will use it as ammunition to say that the model is flawed. Perhaps a more constructive approach would be to take the positives from the good sponsors which have successfully turned around some of the weakest schools in the country.

Last month Andreas Schleicher (Deputy Director of Education and Skills), when addressing the Conference of Education International suggested that the key to a successful academies programme is to share the expertise across the system. He praised the programme in theory indicating that it enables a lot of innovation at the front line. He asked the question “How do you encourage effective sharing of ideas?” Academy status allows for innovation that can be used to drive academic standards, but the challenge is to get it to spread into the system as a whole.

It follows that when the best academies expand, excellence will be spread across the system. This can be seen by successful sponsors such as Harris and Ark groups and their consistent success in turning around schools in decline.

At the beginning of the year the publication of the academies inquiry report commissioned by the RSA charity and Pearson recognised the importance of independence but stressed that schools work best if they are connected to the rest of the system and work with each other to improve the quality of teaching and learning.

There is much to be taken from this with regard to converter academies, only a few of which have fulfilled their obligation to support other schools within the borough. Arguably, allowing already successful schools to obtain extra-funding through converting to academy status and subsequently becoming a stand-alone academy has been a waste of money… money that could have been used to assist struggling schools in deprived areas, the kind of schools which sponsored academies have gained great success in turning around.

The success of sponsored academies in the recent league tables is clear evidence that the model is not flawed and will serve as justification that the government are right to continue to support the sponsored academy programme.

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