Academy Chains: A scandal that needs to end

Henry Stewart's picture
The announcement today that E-ACT will "relinquish" control of 10 of its schools has been described as "the largest forced reorganisation of school management since the end of the grammar school era". But, with other chains also struggling, it may be the first of many such disruptions to our schools. The story of the chains can only be described as a scandal:

No track record of improvementPrevious LSN analysis has shown that the core argument of Gove, that chains improve schools, is false. Of 151 local authorities, only 2 have an average GCSE benchmark (5 GCSEs including English and Maths) that is on 35% or below once GCSE equivalents* are removed. Of the 7 biggest chains, no less than 4 have an average benchmark among their established schools of 35% or less. That analysis only includes schools that have been with the chain for 5 years or more, surely enough time to have an impact. In terms of GCSE results, E-ACT is not the worst performing chain. Our analysis showed, of the biggest 7 chains, 3 had lower average results than E-ACT.

One of AET's schools has been with the chain for twelve years, and was established with £46 million of public money, yet in 2013 less than one in five of its students achieve the 5 GCSEs benchmark, once equivalents are removed. We know that many schools face challenges and have difficult circumstances. However most of the chains have not been engines of improvement, and do not appear to have helped such schools. Indeed, even before the latest inspections, 5 of the 18 E-ACT schools that had been inspected by Ofsted were deemed "Inadequate".

Closed finances: Chains do not need to report any financial information about the performance of the individual schools, in direct breach of a promise from David Cameron and in defiance of the demands of the Public Accounts Committee. They money can be re-routed between schools or used to buy services as they wish.

Salaries well above those of LEAs: The Chief Executives of chains seem able to pay themselves whatever they like. The previous CEO of E-ACT, Bruce Liddington, was able to pay himself almost £300,000. He stepped down after the chain was given a "financial notice to improve" by the Education Funding Agency amidst talk of financial irregularities of £393,000. E-ACT had previously been investigated over claims that the directors were living the "high life". The head of the Harris chain was reported as earning even more(£320,000), and £200,000 plus salaries have been reported at other chains.

Profit vehicles? The Department for Education claims that those associated with chains cannot make profits. However the Guardian found academy chains paying millions to private firms associated with their directors. AET has recently put out a tender for services across its schools of between £200 million and £400 million over ten years, the provider to be majority owned by the Trust. It may be true that the Trust will still not make profits but there is nothing to stop the Directors paying themselves ever higher salaries from any surplus generated.

Not subject to scrutiny: Michael Wilshaw believes it is vital that Ofsted should be able to inspect chains. Schools Minister David Laws says Ofsted should have the powers to inspect chains. Even Jonathan Simons, Head of Education at the right-wing think-tank Policy Exchange today stated "it is vital that academy chains be inspected by Ofsted". It seems that it is only Michael Gove, and maybe some of the "swivel-eyed loons", that believe the chains should be exempt from public scrutiny.

The evidence is mounting that academy chains have been a scandalous waste of public money. Our schools should not be toys to be passed between different sponsors and trusts, few of which have any record of actual improvement. They deserve stability and to be in the hands of organisations that can genuinely support and challenge them. And, dare I suggest it, ones that are locally accountable in a democratic way.

Labour should be clear that chains are not popular. When put on stand-by to debate on the BBC News channel tonight, I had to wait for hours for confirmation because of the difficulty finding anybody prepared to go on air and defend chains. Their fast expansion seems due to Michael Gove's obsession with "the blob". The LEAs, the teaching universities, the unions, anybody who actually knows anything about education, is to be avoided. The fact that chains lacked this experience is seen by the Secretary of State, in his ideological obsession, as an advantage. But it has not proved a benefit for most of the schools involved.

We need accountability, we need financial transparency, we need clear public scrutiny and we need a role for local education authorities - of whom the good ones would be able to spot schools that need to be challenged long before Ofsted goes in. And we need Labour to have the courage to take on the government on an issue on which it can surely get popular support.


Note on GCSE Equivalents: *GCSE equivalents are exams like Btecs that have been treated as equivalent to 1, 2 or 4 GCSEs. While some are useful, their widespread use has been described by the DfE as "artificially inflating" school results and will mainly be removed from the 2014 results.



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Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 26/02/2014 - 09:33

Henry - this is an important post. It is unacceptable that schools are handed from sponsor to sponsor. Even if the evidence showed sponsored academies were all good or better (which they're not) then it would still be unacceptable for the DfE to make arbitrary decisions about which organisation will run a school.

Again and again this site has shown:

1 Sponsored academies are no better (actually slightly worse) than similar non-academies.
2 Sponsored academies are more likely to enter pupils for GCSE equivalents (and it appears the use of equivalents by sponsored academies has increased since 2010/11.

3 There are now nearly 500 organisations on the DfE's approved sponsor list. Some of them appear to have been fast-tracked (eg Bau/Mentora); others don't exist (eg Carillion Academies Trust). It's inconceivable that the DfE can monitor all of these sponsors.
4 The Academies Commission found many heads of academies in chains complained they had less freedom than when they were LA maintained, and warned some chains were growing too rapidly.
5 Some academy chains appear to be nothing more than "vehicles" by which trustees of the academy trust can make money for shareholders in for-profit companies behind the scenes.

Michael Gove said in 2011 that he wanted chains to grow as quickly as possible. He's had his wish - and pupils and taxpayers are paying the price.

It's not as if problems weren't apparent before the Coalition came to power. PriceWaterhouseCoopers 2008 found many sponsored academies were using vocational exams to boost performance; the National Audit Office warned about conflicts of interest when sponsors sold services to their academies in 2010.

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 26/02/2014 - 12:40

Barnfield Federation is another academy chain which is looking very dodgy. It's just been discovered the Barnfield College claimed £1m for students it didn't have.

The DfE has withdrawn Barnfield Federation from its takeover of Sandy Upper School which the Federation has been running since September despite not formally taking it over. Barnfield changed the uniform and, according to the local paper, forced some pupils to give up GCSE options. One parent told the paper that parents were in "uproar" and the whole thing was a shambles.

Barnfield still appears on the school's website described as a "dynamic organisation that leads the way, driving up standards and outcomes". It also says it's due to take over four more academies.

There might be some doubt over that.

The Governors are due to meet tomorrow. Perhaps they should dump the academy conversion idea and stay with the local authority.

Al Wilson's picture
Sun, 09/03/2014 - 10:03

Al Wilson's picture
Sun, 09/03/2014 - 10:11

So that now means out of the last seven E-act academies inspected, 4 are inadequate and 3 require improvement

Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 09/03/2014 - 10:44

During the consultation to convert Alumwell Business and Enterprise College into West Walsall E-Act Academy, Sir Bruce Liddington, CEO of E-Act said:

"Our academies move quickly to become outstanding centres of education and we work closely with the communities we serve as we seek to embed a strong learning ethos."

Instead, the school moved from Satisfactory in February 2012 to Inadequate.

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