Trouble at two academy chains: AET banned from expanding and E-Act gets a warning

Janet Downs's picture
“I believe that chains such as the Harris group, Ark or the United Learning Trust are doing an amazing job on the ground, working with local authorities and turning round schools in the worst condition. As far as I am concerned, they should grow at the fastest sustainable rate,” said Education Secretary Michael Gove in July 2011 shortly after ULT, which had been banned from taking on more academies by the previous Government for poor performance, had its ban lifted.

But in January 2013 the Academies Commission said that some academy chains were expanding too rapidly and some of these chains had no coherent approach to school improvement.

One of these rapidly expanding chains is the Academies Enterprise Trust (AET) which now runs 65 schools. Most of these have opened since January 2012 when AET had about 20 schools. The DfE has belatedly become alarmed at this rapid growth and forbidden AET from taking on any more schools for the time being.

AET was the chain which took over Noel Park Primary School, Wood Green, when it was forced to become an academy. Ofsted visited Noel Park and said there had been a delay in setting up the governing body because AET was interviewing governors. It was not until January 2013 that the governing body met. In the meantime there had been no statutory checks and duties were not undertaken in the autumn term. Ofsted said AET directors had “provided much-needed challenge” to school leaders and had provided support for the personnel and financial changes needed for academy conversion. “However, there have not been enough practical support, guidance and resources to improve the quality of teaching and learning at the academy.”

It appears, then, that AET were good at “providing challenge” but poor at providing help to improve teaching which is what they were brought in to do.

Another academy chain, E-Act, has been issued with a “financial notice to improve” by the Education Funding Agency (EFA) which discovered “weaknesses” in the reporting of its schools’ accounts.

Becky Francis, one of the directors of the Academies Commission which reported in January, told TES that warnings such as the one issued to E-Act would become more commonplace. And Mary Bousted, Association of Teachers and Lecturers, hit out at the Government’s policy of allowing academy chains to grow quickly. She said:

"And why isn't this information out in the public domain? The money given to academies does not come from the fairy godmother - it is taxpayers' money so it should be totally transparent when there are issues about a chain's finances."

Two years ago, Michael Gove encouraged chains to expand as fast as was sustainably possible. That encouragement was irresponsibly foolish.

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