Academies and free schools - Education Contents

Conclusions and recommendations

Evidence of effect of academy status on standards and closing the gap

1.  The evidence indicates that there is a complex relationship between attainment, autonomy, collaboration and accountability. PISA research does not support a straightforward relationship between attainment and the academy model of autonomous schools but it suggests that, together with other factors (including notably strong accountability), autonomy can work in the interests of raising attainment. There is less evidence of the impact of autonomy on closing the gap. The OECD is also clear that decision-making must also be delegated to the appropriate level if school-leaders and teachers are to be able to apply their professional skills to gain the best results. (Paragraph 61)

2.  Current evidence does not allow us to draw firm conclusions on whether academies are a positive force for change. According to the research that we have seen, it is too early to judge whether academies raise standards overall or for disadvantaged children. This is partly a matter of timing. We should be cautious about reading across from evidence about pre-2010 academies to other academies established since then. What can be said is that, however measured, the overall state of schools has improved during the course of the academisation programme. The competitive effect upon the maintained sector of the academy model may have incentivised local authorities to develop speedier and more effective intervention in their underperforming schools. (Paragraph 63)

3.  Some chains, such as Harris, have proved very effective at raising attainment, while others achieve worse outcomes than comparable mainstream schools. What is clear is that the picture is highly variable across the country and in the case of sponsored academies, across chains. More information is needed on individual groupings. (Paragraph 64)

4.  We recommend that the progress and results of each Multi Academy Trust (of more than three academies) be published on a chain by chain basis as well as by individual academy. (Paragraph 65)

5.  The majority of academy freedoms are available to all schools. One of the few that is not available—but equally one of the most widely used and important—is the freedom to vary the curriculum (whilst still being required to offer a broad and balanced curriculum to all pupils). (Paragraph 66)

6.  We recommend that curriculum freedoms be made available to all schools. (Paragraph 67)

7.  The limited use of their freedoms by academies suggests that more needs to be done to encourage them to innovate and explore the opportunities open to them. We note the inclusion of 'use of academy freedoms' in the Ofsted inspection framework, but consider that a box-ticking exercise could be misdirected. (Paragraph 68)

8.  We recommend that Ofsted look for evidence of effective innovation rather than name-checking use of specific freedoms. (Paragraph 69)

Oversight and monitoring

9.  The evidence to our inquiry supports the need for a middle tier between Whitehall and individual schools. The Regional Schools Commissioners are intended to fill that gap but their role is still evolving. There are differing views, including amongst postholders themselves, as to how the functions of RSCs will develop. We recommend that the Government clarify what that role is and how it will develop in the near future. (Paragraph 98)

10.  The RSC regions are too large as currently devised. We do not believe that an increase in staff numbers, as envisaged by the Secretary of State, would allow the RSC offices to be sufficiently in touch with local information, given the number of schools potentially involved. The number of Regional Schools Commissioners will need to increase from the current eight if they are to perform an effective oversight role for the academies in each region, and even more so if they are to be extended to cover maintained schools as well. (Paragraph 99)

11.  We recommend that the Government review and increase the number of schools commissioners. (Paragraph 100)

12.  Local authorities cannot embrace their new role in education without a clear and unambiguous codification of their role and responsibilities. These should include the championing of the interests of local children, families and employers in ensuring high quality, accessible local provision, rather than championing the schools themselves. (Paragraph 101)

13.  As local authorities adjust to their new role, the Department should also adjust and ensure that local authorities can play a constructive role in challenging all schools, including academies, to be effective. If local authorities perceive themselves to be marginalised and ignored, they will not fulfil their role in holding schools to account. (Paragraph 102)

14.  We recommend that the DfE, as a matter of urgency, clarify the respective roles of local authorities and RSCs in relation to academies. (Paragraph 103)

15.  The voice of parents can be marginalised in some academies. We recommend that the DfE work with academies and local authorities to ensure parents know how they can make representations and that these are meaningfully heard. (Paragraph 104)

16.  We also recommend that the Education Funding Agency and the Regional Schools Commissioners establish protocols so that parental complaints are dealt with effectively and information from the process is shared between the authorities. (Paragraph 105)

17.  Many witnesses have complained about the lack of transparency at the EFA. We recommend that the DfE and EFA further enhance the transparency and accountability of the monitoring process to ensure that academies comply with the terms of their funding agreement. (Paragraph 106)

18.  Public confidence in the academy process is undermined by having the EFA as both regulator and funder. We recommend that its regulatory and funding roles be split and that the DfE carry out a review about how that can best be achieved. (Paragraph 107)

Collaboration and partnership in a school-led system

19.  Collaboration is essential in a self-improving school system in order to provide challenge, support and economies of scale. Harnessing the effectiveness of partnerships to raise school performance is particularly important where schools are autonomous. More needs to be done to encourage collaboration and ensure that it happens. We recommend that Ofsted include evidence of collaboration in its inspection criteria and that a school must demonstrate effective partnership with another school in order to be judged 'outstanding'. (Paragraph 120)

20.  Evidence to the inquiry suggests that collaboration is much more likely to occur and be effective if it is brokered by a third party, such as a trust or local authority. Effective brokering of collaboration between schools must be planned and considered, to ensure that the partnership is advantageous to both parties, rather than cumbersome, and real rather than cosmetic. (Paragraph 121)

21.  We have heard evidence that local authorities can be effective at brokering school partnerships. We recommend that the Government set out how it will incentivise the spread of this best practice, including through Ofsted. The codification we have recommended of the responsibilities of local authorities with regard to academies should include their role in ensuring effective collaboration between all schools. (Paragraph 122)

22.  We recommend that the DfE strengthen its monitoring of the collaboration of converter academies with other schools. We also recommend that the Secretary of State seek to renegotiate all existing funding agreements to introduce a requirement for collaboration for school improvement purposes and that all future agreements include this requirement. (Paragraph 123)

Sponsorship and regulation of academy chains

23.  The DfE has begun looking at what makes chains effective but more needs to be done and the results of this work need to be better disseminated. We recommend that the DfE build on its existing analysis of the characteristics of academy chains by examining best practice and the operation of effective chains, in order to inform the active promotion of best practice across all Multi Academy Trusts. (Paragraph 154)

24.  We recommend that the DfE analyse and monitor the performance and other data relating to academy chains, and publish the results broken down by school and trust, in the interests of transparency and accountability. (Paragraph 155)

25.  Greater transparency is also needed regarding the process and criteria by which sponsors are authorised and matched with schools. This information should be clearly set out and be in the public domain. The process of authorisation and approval has improved but could still be sharpened. Greater transparency over DfE decision-making will help in encouraging new sponsors to come forward and to understand what will be required of them. We recommend that the Government outline the process and criteria by which sponsors are authorised and matched with schools. (Paragraph 156)

26.  Conflicts of interests in trusts are a real issue, as shown by the cases which have come to light so far, and they are magnified in the public eye by the latent potential for the misuse, apparent or actual, of public money. It is essential that academy trustees act as trustees and on the Nolan principles of conduct in public life. We acknowledge that the DfE has responded and strengthened the system but we believe that the Department should go further. We recommend that the DfE take further steps to strengthen the regulations for governance in academy trusts and that the EFA revise its guidance on at cost transactions to make expectations of academies clearer. (Paragraph 157)

27.  Our evidence suggests that the oversight of chains needs to be improved in several areas. We recommend that the accountability and monitoring system for chains, and the criteria used to 'pause' their expansion, be made more transparent and open. The DfE should publish the process and criteria that will be used in reviewing and renewing academy funding agreements. (Paragraph 158)

28.  Lessons should be learned from the US experience of charter schools with regard to oversight arrangements. We recommend that the Government reconsider the appropriate length of funding agreements, with a view to reducing it to five years, and publish its assessment. (Paragraph 159)

29.  We recommend that the DfE create a mechanism for schools to be able to leave academy chains where the relationship is no longer appropriate. (Paragraph 160)

30.  We also recommend that the DfE develop a failure regime for chains, as in the Netherlands, and publish a protocol for dealing with the failure of a large chain as well as how individual schools will be treated when a chain indicates that it can no longer run them. (Paragraph 161)

31.  We have listened carefully to the arguments put forward by the DfE against inspections of chains by Ofsted but we remain unconvinced. We believe that an Ofsted inspection judgement for each academy chain would improve Multi Academy Trusts in the same way as it has schools and local authorities. We also believe that, given the failure of some high profile academy chains, the grading of academy chains and corresponding report information would help Regional Schools Commissioners monitor chain performance, and would give parents important information about the academy chain that stands behind their school. (Paragraph 162)

32.  We recommend that Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Schools be given the powers he has called for in respect of inspecting academy chains. (Paragraph 163)

33.  We recommend that all academies and chains publish in their annual accounts the salary and other remunerations of senior leaders within bands. (Paragraph 164)

Effective structures for primary schools

34.  We have sought but not found convincing evidence of the impact of academy status on attainment in primary schools. We recommend that the DfE commission, as a matter of urgency, research into the relationship between academy status and outcomes at KS1 and KS2 so that sponsors and RSCs can be clear which models and characteristics are most strongly correlated with improved performance. (Paragraph 173)

35.  The primary sector benefits most from collaborative structures, whether these are facilitated by academy status or otherwise. We reiterate the recommendation in our report on school partnerships and collaboration that the additional funding available to schools through the Primary Chains Grant be extended to primary schools forming maintained federations, as well as Multi Academy Trusts. Such funding is particularly important to encourage collaboration between small schools in rural areas. (Paragraph 174)

Creation of free schools

36.  Free schools are a flagship policy of the Government, designed to allow experimentation, but it appears that the policy has been altered so that these schools are also intended to meet basic need for places. The DfE needs to be clear and transparent about how the competition for free school funding is decided and the relative weight it gives to each of innovation, basic need, deprivation and parental demand, and to publish the number and type of applications it receives, from whom and the criteria it uses to make decisions on applications. We also recommend that the Government examine carefully any applications for free schools in areas where there are surplus places and a large proportion of existing schools which are good or outstanding. (Paragraph 188)

37.  Free schools are unlikely to be more than a small part of the strategic plan to create more school places where they are most needed. This does not remove the imperative to ensure that the body with overall responsibility for place planning in an area is aware of plans to establish new schools which will affect their calculations. We recommend that the DfE ensure that local authorities are informed of any proposal to open a free school in their area. (Paragraph 189)

38.  The DfE publishes impact assessments on how it is predicted that free schools will affect schools in their area but similar information is not published to assess what has happened after the school has been established. We recommend that the DfE collect and publish statistical information on the intake of free schools, and monitor the effect of newly created schools on the intake and attainment of neighbouring schools. (Paragraph 190)

39.  We agree with Ofsted that it is too early to draw conclusions on the quality of education provided by free schools or their broader system impact. (Paragraph 191)

Future schools landscape and implementation of education policy

40.  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. 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. (Paragraph 204)

41.  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. (Paragraph 205)

42.  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. (Paragraph 206)

43.  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. (Paragraph 207)

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© Parliamentary copyright 2015
Prepared 27 January 2015