DfE’s approach to ‘underperforming’ academies is inconsistent and muddled

Janet Downs's picture
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Underperforming academies are sent pre-warning notices demanding ‘urgent action to improve’, Schools Minister Nick Gibb told Parliament on 15 June. This would be ‘ultimately’ followed by a warning notice that the academy should change sponsors. The Government, Gibb said, had already changed sponsors in 69 academies.

This number has increased to 75, the Department for Education (DfE) has confirmed.

More than 75 had actually changed academy trusts, the DfE said, but these moved for reasons other than ‘underperformance issues’. These weren’t included.

Despite Gibb’s assurance that underperforming academies would be sent pre-warning letters, the majority of the 75 had not been sent them. I found only 14*.

Did all 75 have ‘underperformance issues’? It appears not. Some were free schools which had posted no results. Were these free schools Inadequate? The answer is, not necessarily. The CET free schools in London, now Minerva Academy and Solebay Primary, were Requires Improvement (RI). Aldborough E-Act Primary was Good. Kings Science Academy was RI, but the reason it changed hands (rightly) was the Trust’s financial irregularities.

Manchester Communication Academy, a new academy opened in 2010, was Good. It changed hands because lead sponsor BT took over sole sponsorship when Manchester College relinquished its co-sponsorship. Wigan UTC, another Good academy, changed sponsors. Whatever the reason it can’t have been ‘underperformance’ - inspectors said achievement was Good.

Only one of the five Barnfield academies was underperforming: Barnfield Studio Academy. It received a pre-warning letter in October 2013 despite being Good. Ofsted judgements will, of course, count for nothing when a school is deemed underperforming and subject to action. In the case of Barnfield Studio, Ofsted was ignored although the pre-warning letter was rescinded a year later. These academies did not change sponsors because of ‘underperformance issues’ but because Barnfield Federation’s complex structure needed untangling following negative reports from two Funding Agencies.

The listed E-Act academies changed hands because the DfE said E-Act should relinquish some of its academies following a damning Ofsted assessment of E-Act academies. But not all the E-Act academies which moved sponsor were Inadequate – I found two were RI and two were actually Good.

The six academies with Prospects Academies Trust (PAT) changed sponsors because PAT went into liquidation. But not all were Inadequate: one hadn’t been inspected; two were RI and one was Good.

There are other anomalies:

1Ofsted found a ‘trend of rising attainment’ at St Michael’s and All Angels CofE Academy in May 2011 and judged it Good. But the academy was already slated for closure – few parents had chosen the school. This fall in demand was attributed to comments made by Katharine Birbalsingh at the Tory conference in 2010 – a charge Birbalsingh denied. The Good Ofsted didn’t save it - it became ARK All Saints Academy in May 2013.

2‘Underperformance’ was not the primary reason Charles Read Academy moved chains – it was to keep it open after WGAT announced its closure.

3Several stand-alone converter academies whose Ofsted judgements fell after conversion have been required to join chains – the academy trusts initially regarded as capable enough to take sole control now apparently judged incompetent.

It’s clear, then, not all 75 academies moved chains because of ‘underperformance issues’. In some cases the change was triggered by a poor Ofsted outcome rather than not meeting benchmarks. This reveals the DfE’s muddled response to Ofsted judgements. If a school or academy is judged Inadequate then the DfE accepts inspectors’ reports. But the DfE will disregard Good or better verdicts if results fall below ever-rising benchmarks. It appears Ofsted judgements will only be accepted if they can be used to justify DfE action – either by enforcing academy conversion or requiring academies to join or change chains.

What is clear is the majority of the 75 did not receive pre-warning letters – supposedly the first step towards improvement. Instead, the DfE seems to have chosen the nuclear (and more expensive) option of moving academies into or between chains before allowing academies the chance to improve themselves.

*It may be some of the academies have since changed names. Pre-warning letters, therefore, may have been sent to academies under their previous names. However, these are likely to be very few in number. The fact remains the majority (about 80%) of the 75 academies did not receive pre-warning letters.

CORRECTION 16.32. The original article said three Prospect academies were RI. This was an error. Two were RI, one not inspected, one was Good and two were Inadequate before changing sponsors. One, Bexhill High Academy, has been upgraded to RI since moving from Prospects to Attwood Academies. The error has been corrected.
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