The Academies Programme - Public Accounts Committee Contents

1  Academies' performance and achievements

1. The Academies Programme began in 2002, and was originally designed to raise educational standards and aspirations in deprived areas, often by creating academies that replaced schools with long histories of under-performance. These original academies are managed by charitable companies and governing bodies established by sponsors.[2] As at 5 January 2011, there were 271 'sponsored academies' in England.[3]

2. The Programme has so far achieved substantial success.[4] Most sponsored academies have seen increases in academic attainment for their pupils compared with their predecessor schools. Although still below the national average, the proportion of pupils gaining five or more A*-C grade GCSEs or equivalent is improving at a faster rate in academies than in maintained schools with similar intakes.[5]

3. We took evidence from two representatives of sponsors, the United Learning Trust (ULT) and Absolute Return for Kids (ARK). They told us that the distinguishing feature of their academies was the persistence and rigour with which they had secured the changes known to drive improvement in educational attainment. These changes included:

  • high-quality leadership, through which the sponsor helps to define and promote a strong ethos with high expectations of pupils and staff;
  • a relentless focus on standards by the academy's senior team, to encourage academic engagement and in-depth learning, coupled with close monitoring of pupils' progress;
  • a curriculum offering subjects and qualifications that reflect the needs and abilities of pupils; and
  • creativity and innovation, including practical measures such as a longer school day to provide more opportunities for pupils to learn.[6]

4. The experience of these sponsors taught them that effective school leadership was vital where rapid progress was needed to deal with past failures. Without it, problems could quickly recur, in the form of, for example, pupil and staff dissatisfaction.[7] With a natural turnover of headteachers, large numbers of new leaders are needed every year to cover the more than 20,000 state schools in England. Potential shortages of outstanding leaders in schools present a considerable risk to the future effectiveness of the Academies Programme.[8] ULT also told us that it released some of its most promising leaders to attend professional executive courses.[9] Where academies operated in clusters, it was possible for the most talented leaders in a region to influence more academies. Some similar collaborative arrangements operated in the wider schools sector, and the Department was strongly encouraging academies to partner with weaker schools.[10]

5. The sponsors described their ambitions to create clusters of academies, operating regionally and locally, for example with community primary schools.[11] They were helped by a change in the attitude of local authorities, which in recent times had generally cooperated well with academies.[12] Such collaboration was important educationally for the children, as well as to support the career development of teachers.[13] The Department strongly supported further involvement in the Programme by sponsors who could demonstrate a successful track record.[14]

6. The main focus of the Programme has been to replace underperforming secondary schools, though there are a small number of 'all-age' academies that also cover the primary years. The sponsor witnesses told us they typically saw large numbers of children entering at age 11 with a reading age of 9 or less.[15] They could address this shortfall by focusing extra resources in the first two years of secondary school, but this approach was wasteful compared with what would be possible if children had made the necessary progress earlier at primary school. For this reason, some academies were looking to increase their involvement in primary education, and develop models that could lead to more effective secondary education. Though they had sometimes met resistance from primary school governors where the academy's predecessor school had had a poor reputation in the past, some local authorities were now engaging in discussions on primary/secondary collaborations with academy trusts.[16]

2   C&AG's Report paras 1 and 1.2 Back

3 At the time of the hearing (27 October 2010), there were 267 sponsored academies (Qq 77 and 78). Back

4   Qq 1,13-16, 18-19, 70 Back

5   C&AG's Report para 8 Back

6   Qq 1-13, 70-71 Back

7   Qq 51, 71-72 Back

8   Qq 81, 91-92; C&AG's Report para 3.8 Back

9   Qq 21 Back

10   C&AG's Report para 2.31; Qq 21, 52, 81-82, 91-92 Back

11   Qq 21-23, 29-30, 48, 52 Back

12   Q 30 Back

13   Qq 21, 29-30, 54, 81-82, 91-92 Back

14   Qq 72-73 Back

15   Q 10 and 29 Back

16   C&AG's Report para 2.31; Qq 29-30, 48, 52 Back

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Prepared 27 January 2011