Two B’ham schools taken over by ARK fail to impress Ofsted. Are there ‘no excuses’?

Janet Downs's picture
ARK academy chain has an impressive record with a string of favourable Ofsted judgements. Until 2013, all thirteen of its academies, six of which were new schools, were good or better. In 2011, ARK had claimed it was the ‘top performing multiple academy sponsor’.

But so far this year, two of the three ARK academies inspected were less than good: one required improvement and the other was inadequate.

ARK Rose Primary Academy opened in September 2012 when ARK took over Primrose Hill Community School, Birmingham. The predecessor school had been judged Satisfactory in June 2012 after being in Special Measures. Ofsted said Primrose Hill was ‘improving rapidly’. But this improvement doesn’t seem to have been sustained: inspectors judged ARK Rose Primary Academy to have serious weaknesses in May 2014. Ofsted noted there was a new leadership team and teaching had improved rapidly since January 2014. But this improvement did not save the school from an Inadequate judgement.

A monitoring report said academy leaders at ARK Rose Primary had responded positively to the report and had made an ‘encouraging beginning’ to address weaknesses. But the ‘encouraging beginning’ was already apparent in June 2012 when Primrose Hill Community School had turned itself round without needing to become a sponsored academy.

ARK Kings Academy, also in Birmingham, was judged Requires Improvement in September 2014. Its predecessor school, Kings Norton High School, had been judged Good in January 2011. Pupils in Kings Norton High made good progress, inspectors said. However, in September 2014, inspectors found not enough pupils were making good progress. ARK was providing good support through its subject specialists, Ofsted noted. But it appears this support was not enough to prevent a previously Good school from slipping to Requires Improvement.

The Ofsted report for ARK Kings Academy, however, highlights difficulties which the sponsor (or indeed any school leader) would find challenging: an unstable pupil population with pupils leaving or entering the school at all times; an ability range skewed to the bottom end; 12.2% of pupils persistently absent in 2013, nearly twice the national average.

But to point this out would be ‘making excuses’. Ex-Education Secretary Michael Gove abhorred ‘making excuses’. Anyone pointing out challenges faced by schools like ARK Kings Academy would be described by Gove as being ‘happy with failure’ or misrepresented as ‘ideologues’ who ‘don’t believe in giving children a better education.’ And ARK makes it clear, ‘We won’t accept excuses and we won’t make any either.

So, according to Gove and ARK, there are no excuses why ARK Rose Primary and ARK Kings Academy should have such poor Ofsted judgements. All pupils can succeed if given good teaching no matter what the context, they believe.


But when two ARK academies fall from Satisfactory to Inadequate and Good to Requires Improvement, ARK perhaps is realising it’s not as simple as that.

Ofsted reports downloadable here.
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Sarah Barton's picture
Sun, 19/10/2014 - 20:06

It is tragic. Primrose Hill was forced to become an academy against the wishes of the community and with no consultation. At a public meeting in 2012 parents signed petitions asking Birmingham City Council to help them stand up to Gove and asking Gove to come to Birmingham to talk to parents about their concerns. Sadly both petitions fell on deaf ears.

When Ark took over, Primrose Hill had a 3 year steep upward trend of improvement in KS2 Level 4 results: 2010 - 37%, 2011 - 44% 2012 - 57%. Within a year of becoming an academy the KS2 results had plummeted to a catastrophic 14%.

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 20/10/2014 - 06:48

Sarah - 14% of pupils gaining Level 4 in Sats is the lowest in Birmingham. Funny how this dismal record wasn't publicised amid the nationwide praise heaped on ARK's King Solomon Academy for its results. Toby Young claimed it was 'the school that prove Michael Gove is right'.

But, according to Toby Young's logic, ARK's Primrose Hill would Michael Gove is wrong.

ARK Schools's picture
Tue, 21/10/2014 - 08:52

I completely agree with the main premise of your post – there are no excuses for a school to underperform, and we want our schools to provide an excellent standard of education for all our pupils, whatever their background.

ARK works in some of the least well-off areas of the country. This year, two thirds of our GCSE pupils were eligible for the pupil premium – compared to a national average of around a quarter, as well as higher numbers of pupils who start behind. We believe those pupils can succeed, and on average pupils who start secondary school behind are around three times more likely to get five good GCSEs including English and maths at an ARK school than at other schools.

We are the first to acknowledge that standards are not yet where we would want them to be at both ARK Kings and ARK Rose – and we are working hard to improve that as quickly as possible. We are determined to improve things at both schools, and we have made a start on that journey. ARK Rose has seen the number of pupils getting the expected Level 4 in reading, writing and maths at Key Stage 2 rise from 14% last year to 70% this year and 100% of pupils achieved level 4 in reading this year. At ARK Kings, the number of students getting 5 GCSEs grade A*-C including English and maths has also risen from 24% last year to 46% this year. We are not yet happy with those results though and want to see further improvements next year.

It’s worth noting that behaviour has also improved at both schools – as Ofsted has noted – though we think it could be even better. With new permanent headteachers in both schools, inspectors expressed confidence in our school leadership team and said that staff are fully committed to rapidly raising standards.

While the inspectors said that achievement to date hasn’t been good enough, they also saw evidence that standards are improving, particularly in reading and mathematics, which is reflected in this summer’s results.

It’s worth noting that our other schools in Birmingham – ARK Tindal and St Alban’s Academy are doing well. In 2008, less than a third of pupils at St Alban’s got 5 good GCSEs, that figure is now 64% - above the national average. The school is rated outstanding by Ofsted. ARK Tindal is awaiting the publication of its recent Ofsted inspection, but we believe it is progressing well. 92% of pupils passed the phonics check this year, compared to a national average of 69%. At Key Stage 2, results have improved again this year – with more pupils reaching both Level 4 and Level 5.
We would be very pleased to welcome you to our schools to see the progress that is being made, and to talk to you about our plans for the future.

Penny Webb, Headteacher, ARK Rose Primary Academy
Roger Punton, Principal, ARK Kings Academy

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 21/10/2014 - 14:10

According to the 'no excuses' formula, no school, whatever its context, should 'underperform' (ie hit the mandatory targets set by Government).

According to this logic, a school with a mobile population, with an ability range skewed to the bottom end and with a high degree of absenteeism should perform as well as schools with a stable population, a comprehensive intake (or one skewed to the top end) and where pupils are only absent for genuine reasons.

That doesn't mean to say schools with such challenges can't provide a good education (at least according to Ofsted). ARK Globe Academy, for example, was Good in 2011. But it 'underperformed' in 2013: 52% attained 5 'good' GCSEs (or equivalent) including Maths and English (national average for state schools was 60.6%). When equivalent exams are removed, the figure drops to 41% (national average 53.6%).

At ARK's Walworth Academy, Good in 2010, 57% attained the GCSE benchmark. This is slightly below the national average. The proportion falls to 41% when equivalent exams are removed.

At Ark's Evelyn Grace Academy 58% attained 5 'good' GCSEs (or equivalent) including Maths and English in 2013: slightly below the national average. When equivalent exams are removed, this drops to 47%. Evelyn Grace was judged Good in March 2014.

ARK's Charter Academy: 68% achieved the benchmark in 2013 but when equivalent exams are removed this dropped to 32%. Ofsted judged it Good but it 'underperformed' in 2013 when equivalent exams are taken out.

ARK's St Alban's Academy (Ofsted Good): 56% reached the benchmark in 2013, dropping to 39% when equivalent exams are removed.

ARK's Burlington Danes (Ofsted Outstanding) bucked the trend in ARK academies for the use of equivalent exams. 77% reached the benchmark dropping to 72% when equivalent exams are removed.

King Solomon and ARK (Brent) didn't have pupils entering GCSEs in 2013.

So, the figures above show the majority of ARK secondary academies 'underperformed' in 2013. But 'there are no excuses for a school to underperform'. So, if there are 'no excuses' what caused the 'underperformance'? Poor teaching? Inadequate leadership? But Ofsted has said these academies were Good or better.

So something must have caused the 'underperformance'. And that might be an 'excuse' such as an intake skewed to the bottom end, maybe, or a higher rate of absenteeism, or that children living in poverty are disadvantaged by being poor (less likely to be well-nourished, more likely to be stressed by their family's financial worries, less likely to have a room of their own to do their homework).

But, according to Michael Gove et al, there are 'no excuses'.

ARK Schools's picture
Tue, 21/10/2014 - 14:50

It's important to remember that in the year you mentioned - 2013 - ARK schools entered pupils for fewer equivalents than any other academy chain, and fewer equivalents than maintained schools (ARK 3.0, maintained schools 3.4) so it's not right to give the impression our pupils take more equivalents, quite the opposite. We also have increasing numbers of pupils taking EBacc subjects - in 2013, 41% of pupils studied all 5 EBacc subjects, ahead of the national average of 36%.

In terms of no excuses - we certainly have a mobile population, particularly in London, high numbers of FSM (over two thirds) and low prior attainers, plus large numbers of EAL and SEN students - all above national averages as a network.

And as we said, if you start secondary school behind (i.e. low prior attainer at Key Stage 2) - you are three times as likely to get 5 GCSEs A*-C including English and maths in an ARK school. You are also more likely to make progress in key subjects like English and maths. St Alban's academy was the number one school in the whole country for value added mathematics last year (a score of 1009.3). But of course we could always do better - and we want to see our schools continue to improve.

In terms of our most recent GCSE results (this year) - here they are, along with comparison of their previous schools. For those schools which have been part of ARK for a year or longer, there have been significant improvements (sorry for table formatting)

School Year openedPrevious school (%)2014 (%)Change (pp)
Ark Burlington Danes 2006 31 79 +48
Charter Academy 2009 21 79 +58
Evelyn Grace Academy2008 - 50 -
Ark Globe Academy2008 26 54 +28
Helenswood Academy2013 56 50 -6
Ark Kings Academy2012 41 46 +5
King Solomon Academy2007 - 93 -
Ark Putney Academy2012 62 62 0
St Albans Academy2009 31 64 +33
Walworth Academy2007 27 55 +28
Ark William Parker 2013 38 44 +6

Of course pupils and schools in challenging circumstances face many hurdles to succeed. But we think they can and should be able to have real choices when they leave school - with the option to go on to a good university or pursue their career of choice. We should be challenging every school - academy or otherwise to ensure all their pupils, from every background is given the best start.

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 21/10/2014 - 15:52

Thank you for confirming there are reasons which could explain lower performance: mobile population, disadvantaged pupils, an ability range skewed to the bottom end, pupils with English as an Additional Language (although this doesn't mean EAL pupils aren't proficient in English) and having a high number of special needs pupils. These are usually dismissed as 'excuses' by Michael Gove et al.

The 2014 GCSE results are not yet in the public domain so it's impossible to look at context until they have been published. Neither will it be possible to see how the new progress measure will pan out. That said, the UK Statistics Watchdog (September 2014) had qualms about the way the Government had analysed school performance tables. These concerns included:

1 The uncertainty of results caused by the changing characteristics of cohorts within a school year by year (this is likely to be more problematic when the time scale spans several years).

2 There was ‘some evidence’ that performance is affected by targets - a specific target could affect results and this might be cumulative.

My article wasn't discussing headline results but Ofsted judgements. Presuming Ofsted is reliable (and some would argue it isn't), inspectors judged two ARK academies to have fallen below the judgements given to predecessor schools - schools which for some reason had been thought to need academy conversion. In one case, 'improving rapidly' had been reversed and in the other case, 'making good progress' became 'not enough' pupils making good progress.

Ofsted noted that improvements were being made at the two academies. But it's worth bearing in mind that non-academies in the same situation would have DfE brokers beating down the door and ministers claiming the only way to improve such schools was to turn them into academies with a 'strong' sponsor.

But it doesn't always work.

agov's picture
Wed, 22/10/2014 - 09:38

I assume we can rest assured that improvement, or the lack of it, at Ark schools does not benefit from higher levels of public funding than that received by maintained schools. (<em>The last sentence of the post was removed by the moderator</em>).

Roger Titcombe's picture
Thu, 23/10/2014 - 17:43

Is this the first time an Academy Chain has responded to a debate on LSN? Regardless of the quality of the arguments, this is a good thing. Perhaps the Secretary of State should follow this example. I invite her to discuss with us why Sir Michael Wilshaw is wrong in his insistence that OfSTED should have the power to inspect Academy Chains (like ARK) as well as individual schools.

Does ARK have a view on this?

Andy V's picture
Thu, 23/10/2014 - 18:18

The SoS Educ has said that Ofsted already has the power and authority to inspect chains in the same way they do LAs:

I suspect that the difference is that SMW wishes to have a greater say in gradings and perhaps the ability to put supportive interventions in place.

I admire and respect the ARK contributors for their candour and willingness to engage there are plenty that wouldn't.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Thu, 23/10/2014 - 18:56

Andy - Yes, she did, but was contradicted by the Chief Inspector.

In a statement in response to Ms Morgan's comments, he said: "I am very clear that I have the powers to inspect the constituent academies of a multi-academy trust (MAT).

"I do not have the powers to inspect and report on the overall effectiveness of the MAT."

SMW wants OfSTED to be able to inspect Academy Chains on the same basis that OfSTED inspects LAs. He wants the power, if necessary, to take the same action that was taken in the Hackney LA.

This is both eminently reasonable and very desirable. I would hope Academy Chains would respond positively.

Andy V's picture
Thu, 23/10/2014 - 19:19

Yes, I read the article when it first came out and again before posting it on here.

I also explicitly implied that there remained a difference of opinion/understanding between the SOS and SMW: hence her very careful wording in her statement.

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 24/10/2014 - 09:52

Roger - yes, I was encouraged by ARK commenting on this thread. And I fully support the heads in the two B'Ham schools in their attempts to recover from their Ofsted inspections. Ofsted has found in the past that the leadership offered by a supportive head is crucial to school improvement.

The point I was trying to make was that there are circumstances in which schools are handicapped and will struggle to raise results because of the context they're in. Unfortunately, the 'no excuses' model appears to ignore this.

In 2011, the IFS said a school's results depended on its intake. It also pointed out that some schools were being held “accountable for outcomes over which they have little control”. Again, the 'no excuses' model refuses to acknowledge circumstances which prevent some schools performing as well as others.

That's not to say that schools don't make a difference. The EEF found that may 'underperforming' schools were nevertheless doing a good job in difficult circumstances. And the converse is true, two high-performing grammar schools have in the past been judged Inadequate by Ofsted.

Andy V's picture
Fri, 24/10/2014 - 10:00

A touchstone element of section 5 inspections is that progress be gauged from each pupils starting point on entry into a school. It follows then that if schools conduct a reliable benchmark assessment of all pupils joining them from another school they can use this data during inspection. In this way the 'no excuses' model is formally contextualised within Ofsted's own framework.

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