Why even supporters of academies think it's become a wasteful mess...

Francis Gilbert's picture
(NOTE: This article first appeared in Secondary Ed. I will be speaking on this theme at the forthcoming Education Innovation conference in Manchester on March 8 and 9. Visit http://educationinnovation.co.uk/)

I supported my son’s local secondary school, Bethnal Green Technology College (BGTC), as it was then called, to become an academy. Nevertheless, I have severe reservations about the academies and free schools programme as a whole.

Let me explain. BGTC was exactly the kind of school that needed to become an academy if it was going to raise its game. Situated in London’s east end, with more than 50 per cent of students on free school meals (FSM), it had suffered at the hands of the local authority, Tower Hamlets, and had been for some years a “dumping ground” for excluded children.

It had a falling roll because of its reputation in the neighbourhood and was facing eventual closure or merging with another school. And yet, it had great staff, including a very dynamic headteacher, Mark Keary, and its results were significantly improving.

Despite this, many parents in the local area were very reluctant to send their children there. It needed to “rebrand” and take charge of its own destiny: to take charge of its admissions and exclusions, to reach out for a genuine comprehensive intake, to become financially more independent, and to set up a new 6th form.

In the face of trenchant resistance from the local council, it converted to being an academy in January 2012, becoming Bethnal Green Academy (BGA) and has been on the “up” ever since; for the first time in decades it is full in year 7, its results are very good, and it just received an outstanding in all categories from Ofsted.

This is exactly what the academy programme should be doing; assisting schools in poor areas to do even better. It should be a targeted, streamlined programme which shifts resources to where they are needed: the educational frontline. Unfortunately, viewed as a whole, the programme has been very wasteful.

Common sense should have told the education secretary, Michael Gove, from the outset that a massive expansion of the academies programme would mean that the “canny” schools – the ones already doing well – would seize at the chance for academy status.

You have to feel very confident as a school to become an academy because it means severing a school’s ties with the local authority and becoming totally independent like private schools are, except that it’s the government that provides the running costs of the school in the form of a new funding agreement.

As Henry Stewart of the Local Schools Network said to the Public Accounts Committee this January, a total of £1 billion was spent on the “converter” academies programme, with good or outstanding schools grabbing most of the cash. It wasn’t a wise use of money because most of these schools – unlike BGTC – were doing very well anyway and the majority served wealthier pupils. Research conducted by Education Data Surveys indicates that schools in the country’s poorest areas are up to six times less likely to become an academy.

And as research conducted by respected academics for the Centre for Economic Performance says: “Under the coalition government, the academies programme is now likely to reinforce advantage and exacerbate existing inequalities in schooling. At a time of budget restraint, it seems natural to question whether the large expenditure involved in converting these advantaged schools to academies is justified.”

The government’s free schools programme follows a similar pattern. While ostensibly set up to close the attainment gap between the richest and poorest pupils, it has actually done the opposite.

By encouraging private companies, parents, charities, and faith-based groups to set up their own schools, the government has actually fuelled social segregation: at least three-quarters of the coalition’s flagship free schools have admitted a lower proportion of deprived pupils than is the average in their areas.

In Tower Hamlets, there is a free school, Canary Wharf College, which has just two per cent on FSM compared with local average of 48 per cent.

So while there are a minority of exceptions, such as BGTC, on the whole, the free schools and academies programme has done the opposite of what the education secretary said it would do: help poor students do better.

But let’s put the question of social inequality aside and ask whether free schools and academies do better academically than their local authority counterparts?

It is too early to say for free schools, which have only been running for a couple of years, but if the evidence of academies is anything to go by, there is some quite persuasive evidence indicating that academies do not get better results than equivalent local authority schools.

When the indefatigable Mr Stewart crunched the data for the Local Schools Network, he concluded: “The message is clear. When academies are compared to comprehensives with the same level of disadvantage, their results are worse.”

Now I am a governor of BGA, I can see very clearly how an academy without a really entrepreneurial leadership team might easily fall off a cliff: you are really on your own! There is no local authority to give you advice, to help you if you are in difficulty. It’s sink or swim. In this dog-eat-dog environment, one can understand why many schools use their extra freedoms to “play the system”.

Let’s take school admissions; every teacher knows that there are lots of ways to covertly and overtly select pupils from more aspirational homes.

I feel proud of BGA that the governing body and the leadership team are really against this; we want a genuine local comprehensive. However, many academies and free schools are doing the precise opposite.

The recent report of the Academies Commission, led by former chief inspector Christine Gilbert, says it has heard examples of some academies “willing to take a ‘low road’ approach to school improvement by manipulating admissions rather than by exercising strong leadership”.

It says it has received numerous submissions suggesting that “academies are finding methods to select covertly”.

The trouble is that central government does not have the time, money or resources to regulate all of this and help the 1,000s of schools that are now academies.

If Mr Gove had been less ambitious, spent much less money, and encouraged schools that genuinely needed to become academies to convert, he would have achieved much more. As it is, the programme is a wasteful mess.

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