AET: Questions the DfE needs to answer

Henry Stewart's picture
Earlier this week Ofsted released a highly critical report of the AET chain. As the TES commented, of the twelve academies inspected, half were not providing a "good" education. Progress of students was "below the national level" and especially so for disadvantaged students. Ofsted’s chief operating officer Matthew Coffey said “teaching that was not good enough to enable all groups of pupils to make sufficient progress” and that there were “low expectations of what pupils can and should achieve”.

TES reporter Michael Shaw (@MrMichaelShaw) commented that this was "more evidence academies aren't a magic bullet." That was a fair conclusion, especially as this followed highly critical Ofsted reports on E-ACT, Kemnal and School Partnerships Academies Trust.

But the question that should be asked is not why this specific chain is under-performing, but why the DfE has so relentlessly pursued a model of school improvement, that of academy chains, with so little evidence that it makes sense.

The expansion of AET: From 18 schools to 60 in one year

Ofsted suggested that AET's rapid expansion has "hindered improvement". Here's the detail of how AET expanded:

2009: 5 schools (all secondary)
2010: 8 schools (all secondary)
2011: 18 schools (15 secondary, 3 primary)
2012: 60 schools (24 secondary, 30 primary, 6 special)
2013: 77 schools (24 secondary, 36 primary, 7 special)

But let's be clear. AET did not expand of its own accord. Every one of its school take-overs must have been approved by the DfE.

Did anybody at the DfE think to question an expansion from 18 schools to 60 in a single year?

What track record could AET demonstrate to show it worthy of any new schools, never mind a 233% expansion in a single year?

The AET Track Record

AET responded to the Ofsted criticism that many of the schools inspected had only been with the chain for a short time. Let's analyse then only the schools that have now been with the chain for at least 4 years. There are 8 of these schools, all of which are secondaries.

One of these, Greensward Academy in Rayleigh, has fairly strong results. But it is the exception. Over the 8 schools, the average figure for 5 A-Cs including English and Maths (5ACEM) in 2013 was 51%. However fully 19% of this was due to GCSE equivalents, regarded by the DfE as "gaming" the system. Without these, the average across the 8 established AET schools was just 32%. Without equivalents, only 2 of these 8 schools would have been above the 40% floor target. (And, applying  the new WOLF measure to the 2013 figures, only 3 of the 8 would have been above the floor.)

One of AET's secondary schools has been an academy for 12 years. It opened in brand new buildings, on which over £40 million had been spent. In 2013 only 34% of students achieved 5 A-Cs including English and Maths. If equivalents are excluded, this falls to 18%, less than one in five.

It should not have needed Ofsted to point out that there were problems at AET. What action has the DfE taken to support, challenge or intervene to protect the education of children in AET schools?

When AET was handed 9 secondary schools in 2012, the most recent results were those for 2011. AET then had just 5 schools that had been with the chain for at least 2 years. Only one of these was above 42% on the 5ACEM benchmark. Of the five, one saw its results rise in 2011, two stayed the same, and two saw their results fall.

What in this not particulary impressive track record led to the DfE handing 9 secondary schools (and 36 other schools) to AET in 2012?

The Question of Academy Chains

The main argument put for the conversion of schools to become academies has been the benefits of autonomy. However a key part of the strategy has actually been to encourage academies to become part of academy chains, on the basis that they will share resources and expertise (just like ... local authorities).

In the massive expansion of chains of the last few years, was the focus of the DfE on ensuring quality providers or on converting as many schools as possible?

The philosophy appears to have been a market-style approach, where you leave organisations to perform as they wish and let them be judged on their success, or lack of it. Thus chains could not be directly inspected by Ofsted, as that would restrict this freedom to innovate. But the results are now clear: left to themselves, some chains do badly, and let down the children whose education they are responsible for.

The Ofsted report on AET is damning about the specific contribution that AET makes. Some academy leaders felt "isolated", of the chain's new systems the heads "doubted they would work effectively", and the school leaders "did not have confidence in the Trust’s ability to provide the support they needed."

There are some chains, such as ARK, that have performed well. But there are now many that have not. Of the top 7 chains (in terms of numbers of secondary schools), over half had an average GCSE benchmark (once equivalents were excluded) in 2013 of 35% or less. This is not evidence of a successful new approach to England's education.

What system of oversight and accountability is the DfE introducing to deal with the issues of underperforming chains? (Is it doing anything on this issue?)

And, finally, what will Labour do - if it wins the election in 2015 - to ensure schools in chains receive the support they deserve? Is a set of Directors of School Standards enough to deal with a system that is as broken as this one?


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. The Wolf measure is the measure being used from 2014, where only some equivalents will be allowed and then only as equivalent to one GCSE.

Data note: The figures here are based on the school-by-school 2013 GCSE data released by the DfE in January 2014. Details of which school belongs to which academy trust can be found here.
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Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 05/09/2014 - 07:41

The Academies Commission warned in January 2013 that some academy chains were growing too quickly and many had no coherent plan of improvement. The Govt never responded to the Commission's concerns. Instead it ignored the warning and followed the advice of the then Education Secretary, Michael Gove, who had said in 2011 that he wanted chains to grow as fast as possible.

Earlier this year, AET requested tenders to outsource all services needed by their academies except actual teaching. One member of the Education Select Committee said this was privatisation by the back door. This should act as a warning - no private firm is going to be interested in tendering unless it is confident that taxpayers' money can be hived off into shareholders' pockets. And it turns out that the chain responsible for accepting and monitoring the service contract has been criticised by Ofsted.

Richard Hatcher's picture
Fri, 05/09/2014 - 13:51

Henry Stewart does another excellent job of analysis of academy date. He diagnoses the patient as desperately ill…but then prescribes aspirin as the cure, to be delivered by a quack doctor. The solution isn’t to rely on Labour ‘to ensure schools in chains receive the support they deserve’, it’s euthanasia, put these chains out of their misery. Labour should end control of schools by chains. No state-funded schools should be ‘sponsored’ or controlled by private organisations. (This is not intended to affect denominational schools, which is a separate argument.) David Wolfe the education legal expert has demonstrated that academy funding agreements can be overridden. If a school wants to continue a partnership with an ex-sponsor, as with any external organisation, it should be able to do so, but this does not require any power to be handed over to it from the reconstituted governing body. Yes we know that Labour has no intention of ending this semi-privatisation, but that doesn’t mean we should stop campaigning for it to do so.

Arthur Harada's picture
Sat, 06/09/2014 - 11:31

Indeed a big question that demands SofS Morgan to respond. Fortunately for her, I am reliably informed by the DfE Ministerial and Public Communication Division of the DfE that the DfE has appointed "eight excellent Policy Fellows into the department. The Policy Fellows are high-caliber( sic) professionals from a range of external sectors who will work with specific policy-making divisions and Strategy Unit. They will inject fresh skill, experience and innovative thinking into the department's policy making and delivery challenges." Over to these fine Fellows!

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