Outcomes for disadvantaged pupils vary significantly between and within chains, says Sutton Trust. Someone tell Tristram Hunt.

Janet Downs's picture
When sponsored academies were first introduced in 2002 they were promoted as the best way of improving outcomes for disadvantaged children.

Twelve years on the number of sponsored academies and chains has grown. The present Government allowed schools to convert to academy status thereby increasing the number of academies to around 4,000. “The expansion of the academy programme has been one of the great success stories of this Government,” said the Education Secretary Nicky Morgan on Tuesday.

But do sponsored academies in chains really improve outcomes for disadvantaged children? The Sutton Trust looked at 31 established academy chains and found:

1Some chains did extremely well; others did not. There was “very significant variation” both between and within chains.

2Only 16 of the 31 chains did better than all mainstream schools between 2011 and 2013.

3Only 9 of the 31 chains performed better than the average for all mainstream schools in 2013.

4Five chains promoted high attainment for all pupils including disadvantaged ones across a whole range of measures. These were: Harris, Barnfield, Mercers, ARK and Outwood Grange. Three are based in London which outperforms the rest of the country as a whole. Some of the achievement of the London-based academies could have been caused by other factors, such as the London Challenge, researchers noted. And Barnfield, it should be remembered, is the Foundation which claimed £1m for non-existent students.

5Some chains were “highly ineffective” across the range of measures. Some of these, researchers noted, had now been “paused” from taking on more academies.

6Most of the 31 academy chains relied heavily on equivalent examination (including Outwood Grange listed above), something Henry Stewart has already discovered.

7Most of the 31 academy chains underperformed on the EBacc measure, again something which Henry has already pointed out.

818 of the 31 chains improved more than all mainstream schools between 2011 and 2013. But this was only what would be expected, researchers said: “low attainment in the first instance at least, but rapid improvement”. Again, this is something we’ve often pointed out – rates of improvement from a low base are likely to be higher than ones calculated from a higher base. But the Government still banks on people not grasping this statistical fact and uses rates of improvement to show the superiority of sponsored academies.

The Trust said key factors found in more successful chains were a “measured approach to expansion” and accruing effective strategies for school improvement. The Academies Commission warned in January 2013 that some chains were growing too rapidly – it was ignored. Now some of these rapidly expanding chains have been belatedly stopped from taking on more academies (eg AET) or have had several of their academies inspected in an Ofsted swoop and found to be underperforming (eg E-Act, TKAT).

The co-ordinated pounce on academies in a single chain is the only way in which Ofsted can inspect a chain. It has no power to inspect them as a whole as it can with local authorities. The Sutton Trust wants that to change. It recommended that Ofsted be given the power to inspect academy chains and make judgements about their provision. Other recommendations included:

1The DfE should publish data about how chains perform.

2The DfE should make the procedures for matching sponsors to schools more transparent (this recommendation was also in Peter Clarke’s “Trojan Horse” report, see faq above).

3Chains should not be given permission to expand until they’ve a track record of success (something Lord Hill should have borne in mind when he allowed Prospects Academies Trust to take over more schools when the one it had, Gloucester Academy, was performing badly.)

4Funding agreements should be reduced from seven years to five.

5The DfE should research how successful chains are transforming schools. (I would go further to research how any school, of whatever type, is successful – and not just by the narrow measure of exam results – in providing a good education for its pupils.)

Not everyone quite understood the report’s findings which, apart from those listed above, said a majority of the 31 chains still underperformed the average for mainstream schools on attainment for disadvantaged pupils. Shadow Education Secretary Tristram Hunt tweeted:

“Today’s Sutton Trust report – more evidence of the transformational impact of Labour’s sponsor academies programme on disadvantaged children”

Well, no, not exactly.

But at least this wasn’t quite as ill-informed as school minister Nick Gibb’s remark in the debate on Birmingham schools. In answer to a comment about the multi-faith chaplaincy at Gloucester Academy, Gibb said, “Gloucester academy is both excellent and has thought its way through these issues and come up with a winning solution.”

And how did Gloucester Academy do in its recent inspection? It was Inadequate on all four counts. That said, inspectors said the new Principal had proven expertise in turning found schools facing difficulties and “generally” pupils from different ethnic groups “interact harmoniously”.

Gloucester Academy has not fared well under its sponsor, the now defunct Prospects Academies Trust – let’s hope the DfE does a better job in choosing its next one.

CORRECTION 26 July 08.33. The sentence which said, "Only 9 of the 31 chains performed better than all mainstream schools in 2013" has been changed to "Only 9 of the 31 chains performed better than the average for all mainstream schools in 2013."
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