Who will hold the chains to account?

Henry Stewart's picture
Last week, as it released its secondary school data, the DfE press release stated "Schools below the floor and with a history of under-performance face being taken over by a sponsor with a track record of improving weak schools." However analysis of the data shows that the academy chains, who are the sponsors the DfE refers to, have a miserable record. Taking only the schools that have been part of chains for at least 5 years:

Of 151 local authorities, only 2 have an average GCSE benchmark (without equivalents) below 35%
Of the 7 top chains, 5 have an average GCSE benchmark (without equivalents) below 35%

Over 400 of England's secondary schools now belong to "chains" of academies.  These are groups of schools that have a strange independent status. The chains are not elected by anybody or accountable to the local public in any way. Unlike local authorities, they cannot be inspected by Ofsted.

Chain performance is heavily based on GCSE equivalents

The underperformance of chain academies is disguised by their use of GCSE equivalents, like Btecs.  Overall in England's secondary schools 7.3% pts of the GCSE benchmark figure (the % of pupils obtaining 5 GCSEs including English and Maths) is due to GCSE equivalents like Btecs. This element is regarded by the DfE as gaming the system and the equivalents will, in the main, be removed in the 2014 tables. For stand-alone academies, 13.6% pts of their headline result comes from equivalents. For academies in chains, it is 15.2%.

Of the top chains, listed below, only one (the Harris Federation) has GCSE results that are above the national average. But even to get these results, they make heavy use of equivalents. For all these large chains the contribution of equivalents is above 11%. Without equivalents, the average results of 6 of these 9 largest chains would fall below the government floor target of 40%.

ChainNo.5 A-C (E & M)w/out equivDifference
Academies Enterprise Trust (AET)2452.3%36.5%-15.7%
United Learning2151.9%40.8%-11.1%
Ormiston Academies Trust1754.1%36.0%-18.1%
School Partnership Trust Academies (SPTA)1251.7%37.5%-14.2%
Oasis Community Learning1251.6%33.1%-18.5%
Harris Federation1272.9%60.8%-12.2%
Kemnal Academy Trust, The (TKAT)1252.5%39.1%-13.4%
ARK Schools856.3%42.0%-14.3%

These are the largest secondary chains, those for which at least 8 schools had GCSE results in 2013. However there are other chains that make even greater use of equivalents. At the Aldridge Foundation 19% of the results are from equivalents, at UCAT it is 19.,5% and at Outwood Grange it reaches 29.2%.

The results of Harris may not be as robust as they seem. The Guardian discovered many schools following a practice of removing low-achieving pupils form their rolls in the months before exams, to boost their league table result. The Harris chain was one of the worst offenders, with six schools removing over 10% of pupils and one removing 22%.

But levels of deprivation in all these chain are above the national average and some of these schools will only recently have become part of the chain. Are the low results simply because the chains have not yet had time to turn the schools round?

Long established academies and poorly performing chains

There are seven chains that have at least five secondary schools that have been academies with that chain for at least five years. Of these only two chains, Harris and ARK, have managed to get their average result to the national average. Only one of these chains has an average even above 50% without equivalents.

 No.5 A-C (E & M)w/out equivDifference
United Learning1953%41%11.8%
Harris Federation871%60%10.4%
ARK Schools661%45%16.0%

These results make depressing reading and do not paint a picture of groups that have found out how to help these students do well. On the 2014 measure (principally without equivalents), four of the chains will not only be below – on the average for their schools – this year’s floor target of 40% but also likely to be near or below last year’s floor target of 35%.

If a group of local authorities were achieving these results, Gove would say they "underperformed dramatically" - the words he wrongly used to describe Easy Durham schools. Why is there no similar critique of these academy chains?

Time to learn from local authorities?

For comparison there are only two local authorities in the entire country whose average GCSE benchmark (without equivalents) is below 35%. That is two out of 151 local authorities have as low results as four of the top seven chains have with their long established schools.

If schools in local authorities were performing this badly, they would – as the DfE promised to do this week – be handed over to a chain. In all likelihood schools will be handed over to one of these chronically under-performing chains.

It is true that many of these schools are in areas that are highly disadvantaged. However our Secretary of State has repeatedly made clear that this is no excuse for low expectations and poor results. And deprived boroughs like Tower Hamlets (virtually without academies) and Hackney (with a mixture of maintained schools and academies) have shown that disadvantage can be overcome. Their average school results, without equivalents, are 58% and 60% respectively. Indeed of the 11 local authorities where the level of free school meals is above half, 8 have an average GCSE benchmark (without equivalents) above 50%.

There are academies that excel. The results in Mossbourne are every bit as good as is claimed by ministers and another academy in Hackney is likely to match those results this year. However there is a big difference between individual schools focused on the results of one set of students and chains that may have grown beyond their capacity to be effective.

Are chains part of the problem and not part of the solution?

The chains do not seem to be adversely affected by their results. Sir Bruce Liddington, Chief Executive Officer of E-act earned “around £300,000” as CEO of E-Act, until he had to step down last year. His resignation followed E-Act being issued with a “financial notice to improve” by the Education Funding Agency following a series of “weaknesses” in the way it handled its schools’ accounts. Neither its financial problems nor the low results got in the way of E-Act being put in charge of 3 new schools (two primaries, one secondary) in sept 2013

At AET its longest established academy opened twelve years ago, after £46.3 million was spent on building it. Yet after more than a decade its GCSE benchmark figure is 34%. Without equivalents just 18% of students in that school achieved 5 A-Cs including English and Maths. After all that investment, less than 1 in 5 pupils achieve what the DfE describe as "five good GCSEs".

United Learning has four schools that have been with it for ten years. The average GCSE figure without equivalents - after a decade to improve -  is still below 45%. The evidence is damning. On the key measures that the DfE and the Secretary of State use to judge school performance, students in these chains are being let down and there is no evidence that they are able to address it. It is surely time for politicians to intervene.

Michael Gove, will you tackle this stark underperformance in your favoured schools?

Labour, will you speak out and demand this is addressed and these students are no longer let down?

Data Notes

This analysis is based on two DfE data sources. The detailed school-by-school GCSE data is available here. This was correlated with details of schools and which academy trust they are a part of, available here.
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