Tory authority that believes academies are letting down their children

Henry Stewart's picture
Last month John Clarke - Deputy Director of Childrens Services in the Conservative-run Hampshire County Council -  gave evidence to the Education Select Committee, which has been taking evidence on academies and free schools.

While starting with the example of one school that had been transformed by becoming an academy, and emphasising that his council was neutral with regard to academies, John's overall evidence expressed a lot of doubts about the contribution of academies in his county.

Sponsored academies: Letting down Hampshire children

John Clarke started by commenting on their sponsored academies: "I think there are eight sponsored academies, and six of them are either in special measures or have serious weaknesses. The Hampshire ones did not have serious weaknesses or were not under special measures when they became sponsored academies."

Answering a question from David Ward on what has been the cost of sponsored academies that were not robust and rigorous, he continued: "the cost has been to the education of children. We have fewer potentially successful adults as a result of the failure of the schools I have spoken about."

Converter academies: Declining, while maintained schools improve

John went on to explain that Hampshire had become, for the first time, average in terms of GCSE results (rather than above average) and that he put this down to the performance of converter academies:

"I am very concerned about coasting schools. If people believe that merely setting schools free causes them to improve, I would like to see the logic that develops that argument a bit further. I do not see that to be the case in Hampshire. I see a situation where the overall performance of secondary schools that are converted, although we have some stunning examples of really good academies, has dropped two percentage points at GCSE, while that of the maintained sector has improved by two percentage points at GCSE."

"We are in a situation in Hampshire now where we are on the national average at GCSE. This is probably, 2012 excepted, the first time in Hampshire’s history when it has been at the national average. It has always been a couple or more points above the national average. The maths show that it is the performance of converted academies which, as I would best describe it, in many cases have gone off the boil. They have lost their edge. They have lost five or six points, which when you are on 85% does not seem a lot, but aggregate that up to a county level and, as I say, it is 2% worse than it was."

Cause for concern

These are the views of an educational professional, with no axe to grind, reflecting on the actual effect of academies. And it reflects a concern I've expressed before on "coasting schools". The DfE does tend to be aware of schools whose GCSE benchmark is below the 40% floor but two Directors of Childrens Services have told me they found little interest when they raised the issue of schools that had GCSE results in the 50s or 60s but they felt were coasting. The danger is the decline that John Clarke described.

"My own view", he continued, "as a school improvement professional at a senior position for 17 years, is that if you take away the challenge to schools, which has to be face to face, in my view—it does not have to be several times a year; once a year is often enough—you are taking away something very valuable to that school and to the community it serves."

Hampshire is also interesting because it was asked by the DfE to sort out the schools on the Isle of Wight. Faced with a problem of this magnitude, 50 schools in a clearly under-performing LEA, the DfE turned not to academisation or a chain but to a neighbouring local authority. As John Clarke asked on solutions for under-performing schools, "does it have to be a school transferred to another academy chain, or could a really good local authority with a track record pick up that school?"


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Martin Richardson's picture
Sun, 04/05/2014 - 09:23

Interesting to see this reported Henry, and we are now approaching the time when a preliminary assessment of the converter academies is possible, as the early Academy converters will have been operating for a few years. The 2014 performance data will be interesting.

The impact in Hampshire certainly shows no across the board benefit simply from the act of becoming an Academy. A view very much backed up by your excellent analyses comparing similar schools with LEA oversight versus Sponsored and Converter Academies.

There is also an article in The Observer, highlighting another Tory council, Oxfordshire, who are concerned about the impact of Academy admissions policies in the county:

Roger Titcombe's picture
Sun, 04/05/2014 - 10:24

This is an important article in the Observer. It supports my contention that the best of the press is at last beginning to get the message. TV is sadly well behind despite unfulfilled promises from Ch4 News.

However there are profound issues here. Readers of my posts will know that I am a fan of banded admissions policies driven by CATs as the best way of securing fair, all-ability intake profiles.

However as I make clear in the section about Mossbourne Academy in my forthcoming book, this has be an LA (or preferably LEA) wide system, as in Hackney.

Unbanded LA schools cannot compete with banded Academies precisely for the reasons set out by Oxfordshire in the Observer article. A banded Academy can declare its lower ability bands full, while having unfilled places in its higher ability bands. This in effect deflects less able pupils into neighbouring LA schools while creaming off more able pupils to fill the surplus places in the high ability band(s).

I suspect this is happening not just in Oxfordshire but everywhere that has banded Academies competing with unbanded LA schools. Plainly this should not be allowed to happen. Labour's new proposals could, but not necessarily would, provide a remedy. Tristram Hunt needs to be pushed to express a view.

However this should not be interpreted as a general disadvantage of banded admissions policies. They are the only sure way of securing all-ability intakes in an LA's schools and preventing the market producing sink schools. It is nevertheless true that to avoid what the Oxfordshire LA is complaining about, the admissions policies of all the schools need to be under the control of LAs/LEAs.

Banded admissions are not always the best solution. In rural areas where each country town has only one generally all-ability comprehensive school it is not necessary or desirable because of the lack of nearby alternative schools for local pupils displaced by full bands. Banded admissions policies work best in urban areas where alternative schools are close to each other. It is not clear from the article whether the problem is arising in Oxford City or in the wider, more rural area.

Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 04/05/2014 - 09:32

Hampshire appears to confirm this: academisation isn't a magic bullet and can even have a negative effect. This could be because academy governing bodies are having to wrestle with the administrative and legal burdens associated with academy status. This diverts attention from education to admin, financial management and the duty to adhere to Company and Charity law.

agov's picture
Mon, 05/05/2014 - 07:12

It may be more that academy headteachers have to do so thereby reducing the amount of professional time that can be focussed on education.

In proper schools governors may provide help in dealing with other issues (finance, legal, etc) despite idiotic Ofsted saying (depending on which day of the week it is) they should not. With academies there seems to be a much more stringent expectation that senior staff must do these things.

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 05/05/2014 - 07:45

Heads of stand-alone academies are usually also the Accounting Officer who has "personal responsibility for the use of funding in the Academy Trust." The same can be true for foundation schools.

This dual responsibility, for education and finance, is not only onerous but can lead to the situation at Quintin Kynaston where the head resigned after the EFA found she used school funds inappropriately.

Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 04/05/2014 - 09:47

There seems to be an assumption that academisation is the expected route for schools deemed "failing" hence the policy of enforced academy conversion. But a local authority with a track record of good school improvement support shouldn't need to suggest sponsorship to its underperforming schools.

For example, Ofsted (March 2014) judged Peterborough School Improvement Service to be "effective" and noted the "local authority’s senior leaders and the team of school improvement advisers are held in high regard by schools."

Despite this, Peterborough's school improvement strategy 2013 recommended the "sponsored academy solution" to schools judged Inadequate.

But Peterborough's support proves sufficient to help such schools. For example, Highlees Community Primary School was judged Inadequate in October 2012.

Ofsted monitoring in June 2013 noted the support and “very open, professional relations between local authority adviser, the headteacher and governing body”. But an academy order had already been signed and a sponsor identified. The Governors said in monitoring report they were “looking into the possibility of maintaining some of this support” after conversion.

Highlees became an academy in October 2013 with the Elliot Foundation (their submission to Ed Select Committee is here – it would like to see an end to parents, staff, community reps on governing bodies).

Elliot Foundation is connected with the controversial conversion of Colmore School, B’Ham, and also took over three “struggling” B’Ham schools which weren’t quite so struggling when investigated.

Ofsted report re P'Boro School Improvement can be downloaded here.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Sun, 04/05/2014 - 09:55

This is all strong support for the arguments I am making here.

In particular, that there is growing evidence of the failure of marketisation and its Academy/Free School based vehicle.

John Mountford's picture
Sun, 04/05/2014 - 21:18

With each new posting to LSN lately, it feels more and more like sitting on the deck of a wooden ship watching as fire spreads throughout the structure. And this is going on while the people responsible for the unfolding disaster go about their business unchallenged.

Roger, the evidence "of the failure of marketisation and its Academy/Free School based vehicle." is so abundant that the only sensible question a reasonable person can ask is, how in the name of hell is this not making front page in every newspaper in the country? Why isn't this story taken up universally?

Henry, the fact that John Clarke can say what he does from his position surely must count for something!
"Answering a question from David Ward on what has been the cost of sponsored academies that were not robust and rigorous, he continued: “the cost has been to the education of children. We have fewer potentially successful adults as a result of the failure of the schools I have spoken about.” What more needs to be said?

Roger, if Tristram Hunt does not express a view about all that is happening it will damage his party and it will be a dark day for children and young people. A tipping point must be reached for the media to expose the truth of what is happening. What I cannot work out is how this can be achieved. Your comments on Janet's story about Blunkett's manifesto make sense. In them, you say of the media, "The true facts and arguments need to be spoon-fed to them." My question is, who is to do this?

Roger, you believe that the Labour party is our best hope to undo the damage done to educatiion, much of it as you acknowledge under their stewardship. However, unless Hunt takes the initiative to ensure that the media is 'spoon fed' the facts, so clearly explored on this platform and by others, I can't share your optimism about the gullibility of the media being reversed any time soon. I accept, however, that this must happen.

You know of my view that the governance and reform of education is undoubtedly seen by all political parties as theirs to control. This is why I believe that a way must be found to enlist the support of ordinary people and through this to impress upon the media that they have to challenge the apparently accepted orthodoxy. We have to keep campaigning and discussing ways forward, but without action to back this up, we will wait a long time for the changes to come.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Mon, 05/05/2014 - 08:24

John - You right about the need for 'ordinary voices'. In Barrow during the arguments about the Academy plan and for a while after it opened a non-educationalist 'ordinary person' created an internet forum to which 'ordinary' parents and pupils were the main contributors. This also drew anonymous contributions from whistle blowers.

However, the site was eventually closed possibly as a result of legal threats. There is also the real danger of such a vehicle being used as a platform for unworthy attacks on schools by the disgruntled parents of naughty children, so I don't think the LSN 'open forum' model would be wise. However is there another possible type of forum in which postings have to be moderated before going live? The question arises as to who would do this as the moderator and the forum as a whole would be liable to legal challenge in the event of defamatory/libellous postings. The nature of England's libel laws whereby the accused has to produce the evidence of truthfulness combined with the cost of just being accused, makes this a serious issue.

This may be too difficult a problem, but given the amount of stuff that does reach LSN about failures in the marketised system there must be much more going on out there that no one knows about.

Maybe one of the existing parent groups like 'Mumsnet' could set up an 'advice line' to attract disclosures.

Clapped out Barry's picture
Tue, 06/05/2014 - 10:35

Sadly Mr. Clarke will not get a sympathetic hearing from Lord Nash who wrote a rather ill tempered response to an excellent piece in the Guardian on Friday,

Nash's response at the bottom of this page (link below) clearly suggests that local authorities are responsible for failure whereas now newly converted academies are "getting the support they desperately need".

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 08/05/2014 - 08:20

Thanks, Barry, to the link to the comments re Simon Jenkins' article re Blunkett's manifesto. I note Lord Nash says:

"And we are seeing sponsored academies improving at a faster rate than local authority schools."

But, as we've said many, many times before: comparing sponsored academies (usually previously-underperforming school) with all non-academies (including high performers) isn't comparing like with like. The improvement rate in the former will be from a lower base.

And Henry's excellent research comparing sponsored academies with similar non-academies (the primary school analysis featured in TES) shows non-academies improving faster.

(The data used by TES is here).

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