Academies and free schools - Education Contents

8  Future schools landscape and implementation of education policy

The future schools landscape

192. Frank Green, the Schools Commissioner, told us that he envisaged a fully academised system in the next six years, explaining that "my view is that it needs to move to one system or another, and I think it is more likely to go down that pathway". He clarified that that he meant "a trust-based system, where all schools are linked together in groups, many of which would be the current version of academies and then perhaps new versions of trust-based systems that are developed".[308]

193. While this support for a fully academised system has been echoed by think-tanks such as Policy Exchange (who advocate that all primary schools should become academies by 2020)[309], most of the concerns raised during our inquiry and addressed in our report can be seen to have arisen from the speed of implementation of the programme, which may raise issues in relation to the roll-out of the programme at primary level. Theodore Agnew, non-executive board member at the DfE, agreed that "mistakes" had been made within the academies programme, including the system of direct central oversight which had emerged: he told us that "I do not believe Whitehall should be overseeing 4,000 or however many schools centrally".[310]

194. When we visited Boston and New Orleans as part of this inquiry to discuss what could be learned from charter schools to inform the future implementation of the academies programme, we were struck by the fact that the number of charter schools in the US remains low and the sector has expanded slowly, with only a threefold increase in the number of charter schools in the US in the last 15 years. By comparison, the number of academies in England grew from 203 to over 4,000 in the four year period from May 2010 to May 2014.

195. The landscape for schools is very different today from that of four years ago or earlier. Vincent McDonnell, managing director of Prospects academy group, questioned "why would schools look to become an academy?" now, given that the landscape has changed so much and local authorities are working with schools in different ways.[311] He suggested that "The majority of schools that are becoming academies now are either very successful, outstanding schools that seek or believe they should have more autonomy, or they are schools in challenge".[312] By implication, schools that do not fall into either of these two camps may have little desire to change their status.

196. Other witnesses agreed that it was not the structure that mattered. Martin Pratt from the London Borough of Camden told us "what I look forward to is a system where we are clear about how an integrated system supports children to achieve and creates high quality learning establishments […] The question of whether or not all schools are academies is less important than the characteristics that are being displayed by the system within which those children are being educated".[313]

197. This would require a change in attitude from that previously displayed by the DfE. Critics suggested that it appeared that the DfE was interested only in expansion and not in the evidence that supported the policy or in learning lessons from the experience so far. Chris Keates of the NASUWT told us that "DfE officials have become evangelists for academisation".[314] Warwick Mansell argued that:

    The problem for me is that the whole system is being overseen by an organisation that is just wanting to ramp up the numbers and sees that as its basic goal, whereas I think that the very least that should happen is that somebody should be saying, "Well, is it right for pupils in these schools, or for all pupils?[315]

198. David Blunkett MP, Secretary of State for Education at the time of the first academies, warned that lessons must be learned, beyond "we have got nothing to learn from it, except to put our foot further on the accelerator and make it go faster".[316] He cautioned that schools could start to coast or deteriorate in an "atomised" school system unless there is increased "light-touch" monitoring and intervention.[317]

199. The perception that there are now multiple systems of accountability, with some schools potentially falling through the cracks, and a lack of strategic oversight is shared by others. Russell Hobby of the NAHT told the PAC: "it does feel that although having diverse types of schools is very good, schools are now managed in many different ways with different people being accountable at different times".[318] He added that the difference in the geographical scope of operation of regional schools commissioners, Ofsted regional directors and local authorities could risk creating "a balkanised system" and leave some schools falling "between the gaps of every single form of offer".[319] Robert Hill argued to us:

    We need to do away with this artificial divide between whether a school is an academy or not. We need to have an integrated system. […] We need to have clarity so that we know what schools are doing, driving the self improving system, and we know what local authorities are doing in terms of place planning. […] We then have the commissioners…[320]

200. There has been a change in the Ministerial message about academies. The Secretary of State told us that her "vision of the future is what we have now but to build on it: every child having access to a good local school; parents being happy and inspired by the education that their child is getting; the education system preparing our children for life in modern Britain; […] a high quality teaching work force, who are dedicated and hard-working and, I think, like everyone else in the education sector, wanting the best for all children, who are at the heart of the education sector".[321] She made it clear that she did not "want to set any targets" for academisation but instead the priority was "the best schools for our young people, […] and every school to be 'good' or 'outstanding'".[322]

Enacting policy in an autonomous system

201. The capacity of the Secretary of State to compel schools to implement policy is very different in academies and maintained schools. David Wolfe QC wrote in evidence that:

    the consequence of the legal underpinning of academies (namely contracts which are made on the basis of an ever-changing model) means that the Secretary of State is effectively powerless to introduce changes across all schools (eg in relation to school meal standards) without primary legislation (as currently contemplated by the Children and Families Bill 2013 in relation to children with SEN [Special Educational Needs] at academies).[323]

202. The implications of this change in relationship between schools and the Department has been highlighted by the recent decision by the Government to introduce the active promotion of 'British values' as a requirement in schools. For academies, this has been implemented by means of a change to the Independent School Standards which academies are required to follow under their funding agreements. For state maintained schools, the DfE has issued non-statutory guidance on how schools can demonstrate that they are actively promoting British values through the requirement that they must promote the spiritual, moral, social and cultural (SMSC) development of their pupils.[324] The Secretary of State cannot direct academies to follow new policies as she can with maintained schools, and although requirements can be written into new funding agreements, academies with an existing agreement cannot be compelled to implement changes.

203. At the same time, the Government retains the ability to restrict the autonomy of academies indirectly by such means as national tests and accountability measures. Warwick Mansell questioned whether this degree of centralisation is compatible with the commitment to autonomy inherent in the academies policy:

    We talk about standing back and giving academies themselves the freedom to not follow that, but if you look at the way that it is policed, basically, you have got national tests that are being set up and holding schools to account in great detail about how they perform on those tests, with serious consequences for schools that do not do well. Schools cannot really get away from following the national curriculum, so do we really have an autonomous system now? I am not sure we do. [325]

Conclusions and recommendations

204. There have been major shifts in the structure of schools in England over the last four years but it is salutary to remember that, despite all the attention paid to academies and free schools, of the 21,500 state-funded schools in England, 17,300 are maintained schools and 4,200 are academies as at August 2014.[326] It is not the case that the system will inevitably achieve full academisation, although for secondary schools that is already the dominant model and the direction of travel is strongly indicated. We call on the Government to spell out its vision for the future of schools in England, including the structures and underpinning principles that it envisages will be in place in five to ten years' time.

205. The oversight and intervention systems for English state schools differ according to whether they have academy or maintained status. Both major political parties have suggested that all state schools may be brought under a single regime in the future. Any future government should consider whether the existing dual system is beneficial in encouraging the development of more effective and earlier challenge to and remedies for underperformance.

206. For the new architecture to work most effectively not only must individual academy performance be publicly transparent but academy chains themselves must be as fully scrutinised as local authorities. The DfE, in particular, needs to be far more open about the implementation of the academies programme and how it assesses and monitors schools and chains. This includes funding and regulation by the EFA. Rather than seeing every request for information as an attack on the policy, the DfE has much to gain from transparency and clarity over its processes.

207. The process of conversion to academy status has been exceptionally fast by international standards. We recommend that the DfE review the lessons of the wholescale conversion of the secondary sector to inform any future expansion.

308   Qq549-551` Back

309   Policy Exchange, The next stage of improvement for primary schools in England, September 2014 Back

310   Q807 Back

311   Q947 [Vincent McDonnell] Back

312   Ibid Back

313   Qq1028-9 Back

314   Q1097 Back

315   Q884 Back

316   Q807 Back

317   Q844 Back

318   Oral evidence taken before the Public Accounts Committee on 17 November 2014, HC (2014-15) 735, Q26 Back

319   Ibid, Q26 Back

320   Q569 Back

321   Q1143 Back

322   Q1146 Back

323   David Wolfe QC (AFS0107) para 29 Back

324 Back

325   Q817 Back

326   NAO, Academies and maintained schools: Oversight and intervention, HC (2014-15) 721, p5 Back

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Prepared 27 January 2015