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?"