Education and Adoption Bill

Written evidence submitted by Professor Becky Francis (EAB 07)

Submission of written evidence on the Education & Adoption Bill, based on my notes for the Scrutiny Committee, 30.6.15

I want to begin by re-stating my support for the Bill’s impetus to support struggling schools to improve, and especially to ensure that all schools are adequately supporting the educational experiences and outcomes of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Definition of ‘Coasting Schools’

I am concerned th at the indicator published on 29.6.15 floats free from Ofsted accountability and grades. This risks confusion for schools and parents, both in terms of the agendas on which schools are being held to account, and in terms of outcomes (given it is currently possible that schools graded ‘Outstanding’ might also be identified as ‘coasting’). Ofsted is seen as the chief authority by parents, and application of a different set of accountability measures also risks undermining Ofsted’s authority. If Ofsted’s own data-driven assessments are seen as flawed, these ought to be amended, rather than imposing separate accountability measures from a different source.

I n terms of the shift represented by the newly published approach, i t is worth noting that m y report ( Un ) Satisfactory’ (RSA, 2011), which contributed to what was then termed the ‘coasting schools’ policy agenda by demonstrating the unacceptable relationship between school quality and pupil disadvantage, based its analys is on Ofsted grades and reports. Analysis focused on those schools that had been ‘stuck’ at satisfactory for 2 Ofsted inspections or more (16% at the time), and had been rat ed G rade 3 or below for the judgement of ‘capacity to improve’ .

School improvement, and sponsorship

It is quite right that struggling schools n eed to be supported to improve , rather than simply publicising their inadequacies (which often makes bad situations worse, given the impact on staffing and school rolls) . However, there does need to be more than one method for securing improvement – esp ecially as the advocated method (academy sponsorship) is not yet well-evidenced.

In fact, to say that academy sponsorship is not yet well-evidenced may not be quite right, as there is increasing evidence to show that the impact is patchy at best. The Education Select Committee Inquiry into Academies and Free Schools (2015) was clear the evidence is mixed. And stripping out qualification equivalencies, and GCSE retakes, appears to have had an especially detrimental impact on results for sponsor academies and chains. Work carried out with colleagues for the Sutton Trust (‘ Chain Effects? ’, Hutchings, Francis & deVries , 2014) showed a handful of chains achieving transformational improvement combined with relatively high attainment outcomes across a range of measures. However, it also showed a similar number performing very poorly. We are currently completing analysis of the 2013-14 outcomes, and will send the Committee a copy of the report on publication. However, o ur initial findings suggest that this trend has been extended in the intervening year, including some of those chains identified as having low results and no improvement falling back further in the intervening period. One way to explain the pattern is to say, rather than a typical pattern of reversion to the mean, academy chains seem to be showing increasing polarisation between the effective ones (which continue to improve for disadvantaged students) and the ineffective ones  (which have got worse).

Going Forward

Hence I suggest that struggling schools should be able to be supported by a range of suitable improvement agencies, including successful academy chains, maintained school federations, an outstanding local school partner where one exists, or even successful LA provision. The criteria should be quality, capacity, track record, and strategic vision, rather than provider type.

This expansion of potential improvement agencies might help the DfE/RSCs in expanding the pool of potential providers – this is especially significant, because the evidence suggests they need to raise bar on commissioning, and also begin removing schools from sponsors more systematically and transparently.

On commissioning, evidence to the Education Select Committee Inquiry from the DfE showed extraordinarily high rates of sponsor approval: only 25 out of 704 applications to become a sponsor had been declined (3.6%) as of November 2014. Perhaps it is unsurprising, then, that far from all are thriving. We need tighter, transparent criteria for commissioning sponsorship. I suggest that the criteria should be four-fold, as follows:

1. Quality (in terms of attainment, and offer to students)

2. Capacity

3. Strength of track record (against transparent criteria)

4. Clarity of strategic model and educational vision/strategy (including the governance model, school improvement strategy, regional coherence, envisaged rate of expansion etc).

Clearly for sponsors that are new and therefore unable to evidence track record, it would be especially important that the other elements are particularly robust and well scrutinised.

As greater numbers of sponsors enter the system, it will also be vital that the mechanisms to remove failing sponsors also become more robust and systematically-applied. Emerging evidence highlights the necessity of this to ensure school improvement, and evidently this will be especially vital if sponsorship is to be the main systemic vehicle for school improvement. As was argued by the Academies Commission (2013), the current 7 Year contact (funding agreement) should be reduced to 5 years. 7 years is far too long for a school to remain in the hands of a sponsor that does not secure improvement. In the US, charters (contracts) are typically for 3-5 years, and evidence to the Education Select Committee Inquiry suggested that these tight contracts, coupled with rigorous assessment and non-renewal where necessary, are key to success.

Finally, we do of course have evidence of some sponsor chains with exceptionally strong success. The NAO concluded that DfE did not yet know why some academy chains are more successful than others (see Education Select Committee Inquiry Report). It is imperative that steps are taken to ensure that we learn from the successful sponsors, and spread these lessons across the system.

July 2015


Academies Commission (2013) Unleashing Greatness: How to get the best from an academised system, London: RSA/Pearson Think Tank.

Education Select Committee (2015) Academies and Free Schools: Fourth report of session 2014-15, London: TSO.

Hutchings, M., Francis, B. & De Vries, R. (2014) Chain Effects? The impact of academy chains on low income students, London: The Sutton Trust.

Prepared 2nd July 2015