Academy conversion is not a magic bullet, says Select Committee report which reveals flaws in flagship policy.

Janet Downs's picture
The Education Select Committee’s report on Academies and Free schools confirms something which has been repeated on this site for years: ‘Most academy freedoms are in fact available to all schools’.

One freedom which is given to academies, however, is the freedom to opt-out of the centrally-mandated National Curriculum. The Committee has an answer: freedom to opt-out should be given to all schools.

The Committee welcomed the appointment of Regional Schools Commissioners as a way of moving back to local control. But any lasting solution would need to be more localised and require effective input from local authorities (LAs). At the moment, LAs can’t fulfil their role as ‘champions’ for children, families and employers without a system which lists LA role and responsibilities.

The Education Funding Agency (EFA) should be split in two: one for regulation, the other for funding. This would restore confidence in the EFA’s ability to monitor academy trusts, the Committee wrote.

The Department for Education (DfE) should publish information on individual school performance AND trusts. It should clarify how sponsors are chosen. The DfE needed to be more open about systems for monitoring academy chains and ensuring they are accountable. It should publish the criteria used when academy chains are ‘paused’ from taking on more academies.

Academy Funding Agreements should be limited to five years. The DfE should provide a way for academies to leave chains ‘where appropriate’ and devise a procedure to manage the fall-out when chains collapse. This should describe how individual academies would be treated when chains close.

Conflicts of interests in academy trusts are a ‘real issue’ and the Committee calls on the DfE to take further action to improve governance in trusts.

The Committee said Ofsted should be given the power to inspect Multi Academy Trusts (MATs). This advice was published shortly after the Education Secretary, Nicky Morgan, announced she was not going to extend Ofsted’s remit.

In one particularly damning paragraph, the Committee said there was ‘no convincing evidence of the impact of academy status on attainment in primary schools’. It said primary schools benefit from collaboration whether academies or not. It recommended that LA maintained schools in federations should have access to funding to encourage collaboration.

It’s too soon to assess the quality of education in free schools or their impact on the wider system, the Committee said. The DfE should clarify how decisions are made about which free schools received funding. LAs should be told about free school proposals in their area and the intake of opened free schools should be monitored to assess the impact on the intake and attainment in neighbouring schools.

In a second damning paragraph, the Committee said:

‘Academisation is not always successful nor is it the only proven alternative for a struggling school.’

The Committee said all schools had a part to play in improving the education system. Academies were still a minority: 4,200 academies, 17,300 non-academies. The present Government should make its vision for the future of England’s schools clear. This should include how the system will be structured and what principles underpin it. The Committee warned that any future Government would have to examine whether the present ‘dual system of oversight and intervention’ is helpful.

The Summary ends with a warning: the DfE should take heed of lessons learnt after the ‘exceptionally fast’ and ‘wholesale conversion’ of secondary schools to ‘inform any future expansion.’

Hindsight is a wonderful thing. There have been voices warning about the rapid expansion of academies and saying academy conversion was not a magic bullet for a long time. But the DfE publicity machine continued to promote the superiority of academies over ‘council run’ schools. The sneer is almost audible. But reams of DfE spin won’t bury the fact that billions of pounds have been spent on a flagship policy now found to be flawed.
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R Waring's picture
Tue, 27/01/2015 - 19:53

Sounds to me like a "Sherlock" statement. As we they weren't warned!

John Mountford's picture
Tue, 27/01/2015 - 21:22

At a time when the nation is gearing up for a general election, this report from a parliamentary select committee indicates one thing the electorate urgently needs to take note of. At least as far as education is concerned, the government of the day clearly no longer feels any pressure to account for its actions, being above even the scrutiny of cross party education committee as your latest posting indicates, Janet.

How significant is this? For me it is highly significant. It is the BIG pre-election story.

The report from the Education Select Committee is the final piece of evidence needed by the electorate to demand a change to the governance of education in England. But, the story of our ailing democracy does not end there!

In another of Janet's recent posts, she reports on how the DfE is being challenged by the NAO over its accounts for education spending.

The fact that millions of pounds of public money (still unverifiable by the properly constituted body - the National Audit Office - established to scrutinise public spending on behalf of Parliament) cannot be accounted for, should cause the electorate to demand action. We have to TELL serving MP's that the game has to change. It is no longer acceptable that education reform be tied into the electoral cycle and that the party in power is able to change education policy on the outcome of a single election. Education is simply too important a national service to continue to be treated in this way.

On its website, the NAO defines its role thus, "By reporting the results of our audits to Parliament, we hold government departments and bodies to account for the way they use public money, thereby safeguarding the interests of taxpayers." Close reading of the report indicates that this is unlikely to be achievable any time soon as far as the DfE is concerned.

The situation the electorate finds itself in is nothing short of scandalous. Education has had such a mauling at the hands of successive governments that we have to demand a change to the way the system is governed. There is no reasonable counter argument to the call for the establishment of a National Council for Education. Political gaming of education is failing every young person, the taxpayers and the teaching profession as well as bringing our democracy into disrepute.

I urge voters to write to their MP's to press for the changes called for by The first politician to support the campaign for a change to the governance of education will establish their true credentials as a champion of democracy. They will help bring about the single most important change that will set education on a firm, fair and radically reforming trajectory free from political short-term tinkering. It needs to be done to stop the shocking waste of precious public funding that is so under threat in the current financial climate but, more importantly, for the sake of our young people and the future integrity of our democracy.

Brian's picture
Wed, 28/01/2015 - 08:31

Interesting to watch the short BBC report from Petchey Academy.

While not stating it explicitly the report implies that the positive comments by students are a result of academy status. In fact they could have been made by any student in any good school with strong leadership and high aspirations.

John Mountford's picture
Wed, 28/01/2015 - 23:06

In response to an earlier piece of yours, Janet -,

I provided a link to the Institute Of Education blog and a piece by Professor Toby Greany in which he offers his analysis of the Education Select Committees Academies Report. In it he makes the following comment about the DfE's conduct in relation to the academies programme:

"The Department for Education comes in for remarkably forthright and sustained criticism here for appearing to lose its objectivity: for example its evidence submission to the inquiry is described as “a sustained paean of praise to the success of the initiative”!

This echoes the comments made in your final paragraph above and links with the remarks in your earlier piece. The decline in standards of accountability in public life is a national disgrace. Toby Greany's remark about objectivity is but another example of how low powerful, self-interested public servants are prepared to stoop. We should be reading right now about plans to investigate why the DfE is behaving as described. Surely, the Select Committee owes this much to the electorate!!

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 29/01/2015 - 08:42

John, thanks for reminding me of the Select Committee's criticism of the DfE's submission. The Committee said the DfE hadn't even bothered to address the Committee's remit but had just presented a hymn of praise for academies.

It would be funny if it wasn't so serious.

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 02/02/2015 - 08:02

‘In the meantime the Government should stop exaggerating the success of academies and be cautious about firm conclusions except where the evidence merits it. Academisation is not always successful nor is it the only proven alternative for a struggling school.’

From Education Select Committee report.

Someone tell Cameron who's still pushing academy conversion as the only way to deal with 'mediocrity'.

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