School Partnerships and Cooperation - Education Committee Contents

6 Academies and collaboration

Inspection of academy chains

88. At present, while Ofsted can inspect schools within academy chains and has recently begun inspecting local authority school improvement services, it does not have the power to inspect academy chains themselves. James O'Shaughnessy has previously argued for this development in a report published by Policy Exchange[187] and he reiterated this in his evidence to us. He told us that "chains in themselves should be inspected and evaluated to see that they are adding value as opposed to exogenous factors that have just happened because they have replaced the head or whatever it is".[188] Professor David Woods similarly argued that, just as variability is seen in other parts of the education system, variability is likely to occur in the offer from academy chains. [189] Inspection would shine a light on this and help to drive improvement. David Sims from the NfER told us that inspecting individual schools only gives a partial picture of what is going on in a partnership and argued that inspection of the partnerships would provide more evidence of the group effect.[190]

89. Sir Michael Wilshaw has previously told us that:

    We will be inspecting local authorities and we should inspect academy chains as well, if we identify underperformance. I have made that clear to the Secretary of State. It is only fair and equitable that we do that. We have not got the same powers at the moment, but I look forward to receiving the powers to do that.[191]

When questioned on this matter, the Minister told us that the Government "would rather Ofsted focused on its other activities, which are extensive."[192] He argued that such inspections would not "give us any information we do not have materially at the moment" from the inspection of the underlying schools and stated that the Government did not "feel [academy chain inspections] would be of any benefit to the Department" in assessing their activities.[193]

90. We disagree with the Minister's assessment and point out that Ofsted inspections are intended to provide information to parents, as well as the DfE. We conclude that parents should be provided with information about the performance of academy chains, as well as individual schools. We recommend that Ofsted be provided with the powers it needs to inspect academy chains.

Moving on from partnerships

91. Several witnesses suggested that being able to leave hard partnerships, in particular, academy chains, under certain circumstances, was important. We heard from James O'Shaughnessy that at least one academy chain had already disaggregated by mutual consent and informal conversation. He expressed concern that if movement between different partnerships becomes more widespread (as he argued that it would) then the lack of a formal process would become problematic.[194] Formal procedures for the leaving or dissolution of federations between schools are written into the regulations governing these kinds of partnership.[195] In its written evidence, Devon County Council argued the fact that schools can 'de-federate' at a later date is a "very attractive" feature of federation as a partnership model.[196] Similar formal arrangements do not exist for academies, although the Minister confirmed that schools could leave hard partnerships by mutual consent.[197]

92. We believe that it would be desirable to have clarification about the formal procedures for leaving hard partnerships with mutual consent, given the growing number of academy academies and chains. We recommend that the procedures for schools to leave academy chains by mutual consent are formalised and published. The Government should consider modelling them on those already in place for federations.

93. Witnesses also raised the question of schools being able to leave chains under certain circumstances, even where this is against the wishes of the sponsor. An example of this would be a school wishing to move from one chain to another that better fits its ethos. James O'Shaughnessy argued that "I do think it is a reasonable thing to think about how schools could move between chains or different governance arrangements, particularly if they are 'outstanding'. [...] I think there is a case for a formal route to do that, but carefully circumscribed".[198]

94. The need for this careful circumscription was the Minister's primary objection to enabling schools to leave academy chains. He told us that "I do not see how the organisation of the chain group can work if people can, frankly, come and go at their will".[199] We recognise this concern and agree that there needs to be stability in the system. A more fundamental difficulty, however, is the lack of a legal entity within an individual school which is capable of taking the decision to leave, since there is no governing body of an academy independent of the chain It appears logical that in a mature education market, schools should have the flexibility to move between partnerships where this is the right thing to do for their pupils. We recommend that the Government explain how a school consistently judged 'Outstanding' would be able to leave an academy chain where this is against the wishes of the chain management.

Monitoring converter academies

95. In the 2010 Schools White Paper, the Government stated that "We will expect every school judged by Ofsted to be outstanding or good with outstanding features which converts into an Academy to commit to supporting at least one weaker school in return for Academy status".[200] During this inquiry, we received overwhelming evidence that converter academies are not living up to this expectation and pulling their weight when it comes to supporting other schools. One submission suggested that many only "paid lip-service to this requirement",[201] and another argued that converter academies are "working in isolation".[202] Similar sentiments were expressed by ASCL[203] and the National Governors' Association (NGA).[204] This is despite the fact that, as part of their application for academy status, these schools named a school that they would support.[205] Even supporters of academies suggested that more could be done. Kent County Council told us that "Academies have played a very active part in [the development of Kent's collaborative partnership model] and are leading a number of partnership initiatives. It may be that the DfE could assist the development of collaborative partnerships by strengthening the requirement by convertor academies to contribute to school to school support".[206]

96. We investigated the reasons behind the situation. The National Association of School Partnerships argued that "Stand alone converter academies tend to be confident, independent, competitive schools with little or no interest in the wider system. Their commitment to form and develop real collaboration is often negligible. At best they show a willingness to help a weaker school".[207] Others were more inclined to look beyond individual schools. The NAHT argued that the DfE's current policy on converter academies supporting other schools ignores "geographical dimensions of school performance",[208] with outstanding converter academies often not having nearby schools in need of intervention for this reason. Nottingham City Council told us that part of the problem was "a lack of clarity about what is actually required as a minimum" from converter academies.[209] They also questioned whether the problem was entirely with the converter academies themselves and suggesting the DfE shared some of the blame for not fully supporting this policy: "Some successful converter academies, who are motivated to support other schools in challenging circumstances, find the main barrier to doing this is DfE bureaucracy and policy change, perceived lack of engagement and understanding".[210]

97. The DfE told us that "Findings from an early sample showed that all of the academies we spoke to either had or were supporting other schools".[211] In oral evidence, the Minister argued that they "do not see a big problem with this", citing seemingly the same survey.[212] When pressed, the Minister told us that the survey consisted of asking 21 converter academies what they were doing to support other schools.[213] No information was given on the basis on which the sample was selected. The DfE implicitly acknowledged this monitoring was not adequate in its written evidence, stating that it "is currently considering putting in place additional steps to monitor academies' support for other schools and how best to monitor and review this more closely".[214] It is essential that converter academies properly fulfil their obligations to support other schools. This is particularly important if progress is to be made in closing the gap between the performance of pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds and the rest of the school population. We recommend that the DfE urgently review its arrangements for monitoring the expectation that converter academies support another school and implement more effective processes as soon as possible. We recommend that such processes include surveys of the schools which were promised support on converter academies' applications forms, since this would give a more accurate picture of the support being provided.

98. We recommend that the Government ensure outstanding converter academies are able to support other schools in the ways they think will bring about the best results. Some schools will wish to support others through models other than that of sponsoring another academy and this should be positively and actively encouraged by the DfE.

187   Policy Exchange, Competition Meets Collaboration: Helping school chains address England's long tail of educational failure (London, 2012) Back

188   Q 68 Back

189   Q 126 Back

190   Q 85 [David Sims] Back

191   Oral evidence taken before the Education Committee on 13 February 2013, HC (2012-13) 980-i, Q 18. Back

192   Q 226 Back

193   Ibid. Back

194   Qq 90-91 Back

195   The School Governance (Federations) (England) Regulations 2012, parts 6 and 7 Back

196   Ev w95, p 1 Back

197   Q 230 Back

198   Q 91 Back

199   Q 241 Back

200   Department for Education, The Importance of Teaching: the Schools White Paper 2010, Cm 7980, November 2010, para 5.12 Back

201   Ev w95, para 5 Back

202   Ev w49, para 31 Back

203   Ev w6, para 30 Back

204   Ev w90, para 6.1 Back

205   Ev 80 para 27 Back

206   Ev 78, para 7.2 Back

207   Ev w61, p 6 Back

208   Ev w25, para 10 Back

209   Ev w9, para 5 Back

210   Ev w9, para 5 Back

211   Ev 46, para 31 Back

212   Q 201 Back

213   Q 202 Back

214   Ev 46, para 31 Back

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Prepared 6 November 2013