In an attempt to show how tough it is with under-performing sponsored academies, the DfE sent out 34 letters
since January 2011.
17 of the letters were sent to academies set up under Labour between 2003 and 2009. The remaining 17 were sent to sponsored academies established from 2010 to 2012.
But seven letters were for academies run by the same academy chain: AET.
Michael Gove said way back in 2010 that academy chains should grow as fast as possible. But the Academies Commission (2013) said some academy chains were expanding too quickly and some had no coherent policy for improving their academies.
AET was one such rapidly-expanding chain.
In July, the Observer discovered unusual payments
of nearly £500,000 into the private business interests of AET trustees and executives. Two pre-warning letters were sent to AET in March 2013 but the DfE still allowed AET to sponsor academies in August
. It had been reported in April that AET had been banned from taking on more academies. This appears not to be the case.
The Learning Schools Trust also received a pre-warning letter in November 2012 about Ipswich Academy. Ofsted judged it inadequate in July 2013. The Learning Schools Trust
is the charitable arm of Swedish for-profit education provider Kunskapsskolan. Each of their academies uses “Kunskapsskolan´s unique personalised learning model”. Ofsted found pupils valued one-to-one tutorials but lessons were often insufficiently challenging.
The Woodard Academies Trust received a pre-warning letter. This Trust, which grew from a group running independent schools, took over an improving state secondary school and turned it round - the wrong way
Another chain to receive a pre-warning letter was the West Grantham Academies Trust (WGAT
) in November 2012. In February 2013, WGAT announced it would close one of its secondary academies against the wishes of parents and the Council. The academy has now been handed over to another chain, the David Ross Education Trust.
Rather than reassuring taxpayers that the DfE is being diligent in its control of academies, the letters show there are problems inherent in the programme:
1 The rapid growth of sponsored academies and chains since 2010.
2 The ease with which academies can change hands. It appears this is in the DfE’s gift.
3 Problems with the oversight of academy chains, particularly their financial arrangements. The same problems seem to be occurring in free schools.
Most of all they show that academy status is not a magic bullet for improving schools despite all the hype that surrounds them.
CORRECTION 26 March 2014. The original article said "the Observer reported the Education Funding Agency (EFA) had discovered unusual payments" to AET. However, it was the Observer, not the Education Funding Agency, which found this out. The article has been corrected.