DfE continues to hype academy success as new Education Bill hits the Commons

Janet Downs's picture
The Government will today introduce the Education and Adoption Bill which will, it is claimed, 'speed up the turnaround of failing schools’.

Education Secretary Nicky Morgan said the proposed measures would ‘sweep away bureaucratic and legal loopholes’ which slow up academy conversion. It’s unclear what these loopholes are – the requirement to consult, already limited to unspecified ‘stakeholders’, perhaps? Or the ‘technicality’ which allows a staff member on a school’s governing body to halt academy conversion by voting against?

Technicalities aside, the Government has shown contempt for the Education Select Committee which said bluntly in January:


‘…the Government should stop exaggerating the success of academies…’

The Committee wasn’t alone in pointing out that academy conversion isn’t a magic bullet. The National Audit Office found informal interventions such as local support were more effective (and considerably cheaper, of course) than formal interventions like academy conversion.

But despite the mounting pile of evidence showing turning schools into academies isn’t a cure-all, the Government plans to force more schools to convert and crush any opposition.

Why, then, is the Government relentlessly pursuing a policy which evidence increasingly shows doesn’t always work? A cynic might say it’s to pave the way for for-profit education providers running English state schools supported by think tanks like the Adam Smith Institute and Policy Exchange (2010 see addendum below). But whatever the reason – face-saving, perhaps, after so much Department for Education hot-air has been expended promoting academies – the latest DfE propaganda follows a familiar furrow.

First there’s blather about how obstructive forces stand in the way of academy knights who want to rescue pupils ‘languishing in underperforming schools’. But rescue, in the form of forcing schools to become an academy with a sponsor, has resulted in ‘improvement’ in just 50% of the schools which took the cure. As James Croft pointed out in his article promoting for-profit schools (see here for critique), half of sponsored academies are judged Inadequate or Requires Improvement at their first inspection post-conversion. And, as the Education Select Committee said, ‘Academisation is not always successful nor is it the only proven alternative for a struggling school.’

But according to Morgan, who charges on like a blinkered cart horse, fast-tracking ‘poor schools’ to academy status will bring about miraculous transformation. ‘Strong academy sponsors’, she says, will turn failing schools into outstanding provision. But E-Act, AET, The Kemnal Academies Trust, CfBT Schools Trust, School Partnership Trust and Woodard Academies Trust are among academy trusts which have been sent letters expressing concern about performance on more than one occasion. And others* have been paused from taking on more schools.

The second familiar characteristic of DfE academy spin is the praise from 'leading heads' - CEOs or Executive Principals of academy trusts saying how academy sponsors work miracles. But as we’ve seen, turning schools into academies doesn’t always work. And non-academies in similar circumstances do just as well without the attendant hype.

Ignoring evidence, spurning advice and wheeling out cheerleaders – Morgan uses strategies familiar from the Gove era to push an expensive policy which, despite all the spin, is not guaranteed to improve schools. In some cases the schools stagnate or fall backwards. The treatment hasn’t worked – in medicine, a procedure which had only 50% success rate would be considered high risk. But Morgan is zealous in imposing this quackery on more schools in England.

*Details of academy chains paused in March 2014 are available here, here, here and here. Tales of extravagance, cancelled GCSE courses, complaints from a charity about damage to its ‘commercial operations’ and a for-profit Swedish provider who told his ‘Conservative friends’ his firm could increase test results while saving more than 20% in costs.

This is a companion piece to Henry Stewart’s article, ‘An education policy based on ideology not evidence’.

ADDENDUM 5 June 2015. Jonathan Simons, Policy Exchange, wishes to make it clear that he does not think 'there should be a profit motive in mainstream education' and Policy Exchange does not endorse “for profit providers running English state schools” (see comments below).

The 2010 reference (which was not in the original article) is to a Policy Exchange report, Blocking the Best, which advocated allowing schools in England to be run for profit. The report said this could be achieved with no changes in the Law by making state schools 'independent'. They could then outsource their operation to a for-profit provider. Academies and free schools are, of course, technically 'independent'. The free school, IES Breckland, has outsourced its running to Swedish for-profit education provider, IES,

At the launch of Blocking the Best, Michael Gove (then shadow education secretary) said he would let groups like Serco run schools (see YouTube clip, at about 24 minutes). Towards the end of the clip, a Policy Exchange spokesperson said Policy Exchange would 'nudge' education policy towards allowing for-profit chains to operate in England.
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mistemina's picture
Wed, 03/06/2015 - 09:12

We in Bucks have proof that you and the Education Select Committee are right to warn against the this Morgan Spin.
50% of our Secondary Moderns (virtually all Gove-Academies) were judged to REQUIRE IMPROVEMENT or worse.

Michele -Lowe's picture
Wed, 03/06/2015 - 09:51

I heard Nicky Morgan in interview on R4 Today Programme this morning. Interestingly, she dropped the epithet 'coasting' referring to schools being targeted for academisation, preferring 'under-performing' and 'failing' instead. In fairness, she was pressed on the idea that parents had a right to question who was taking over their local school and object if they saw the need. That doesn't make them 'obstructive forces'. I don't sense much appetite for the fight in the Labour ranks. Tristram Hunt ought to have been on putting the opposing arguments. I suspect he did not want to turn up for the argument. It'll be interesting to see how Labour confront the bill.

mistemina's picture
Wed, 03/06/2015 - 10:21

We really need Labour to get active on Education. We have to remember Gove, even with the Libs in the Coalition, ran riot.

mistemina's picture
Wed, 03/06/2015 - 10:22

PS. Do we know about the SNP agenda?

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 03/06/2015 - 10:36

John - summary of SNP policy in Scotland here. Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA) not scrapped as in England; no uni fees for Scottish students in Scottish unis.

The full SNP manifesto said a 'strong' SNP team in Westminster would argue for more education funding, support reduction in uni tuition fees (but Tories aren't going to propose that) and back the planned expansion of childcare with 30-hours a week of free nursery education. All other manifesto commitments are Scotland specific.

It's unknown what the SNP MPs will make of Morgan's Education and Adoption Bill.

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 03/06/2015 - 10:41

Russell Hobby, NAHT general secretary, told Schools Week “Parents who have campaigned against the opaque and centralised process of academisation will be dismayed to see themselves dismissed as obstacles to be eliminated."

mistemina's picture
Wed, 03/06/2015 - 13:22

I like the Scots!

Jonathan Simons's picture
Wed, 03/06/2015 - 22:08

On point of fact, I'd be very grateful if you could please remove the reference to PX above - we do not endorse "for profit providers running English state schools" and indeed I'm on record several times as having said that.

Many thanks!

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 04/06/2015 - 07:57

Thanks, Jonathan. Are you now distancing PX from comments made in 'Blocking the Best', a report co-authored by PX and the New Schools Network in 2010 which said (page 8):

'At present academy sponsors are barred from making a profit. There is no legislative reason why profit should not be allowed (these schools are simply classified as independent schools). When Tony Blair introduced academies, officials and the most radical ministers (including Lord Adonis and John Hutton) knew that allowing profit would provide a significant boost to the market, but considered the politics unworkable. There is no doubt that the politics are not easy. However, if we seek a large number of chains to drive expansion in the schools sector then this is one nettle that will need to be grasped – at least by allowing management fees between schools and private companies. Barring profit reduces the pool of organisations which want to set up several schools, and means those that do exist do not have a direct incentive to expand.'?

At the launch of 'Blocking the Best', Michael Gove said he would allow groups like Serco to run schools (see YouTube about 24 mins in). At the very end of the clip (58.13 mins), a PX spokesperson was asked about profit. She said 'in the longer term, though, I think if we're going to achieve serious scale then profit is a big issue because a lot of chains who would like to come to this country and people who would like to expand are very much waiting for that to happen...Policy Exchange would certainly nudge very strongly in this direction.'

Has PX stopped nudging?

Jonathan Simons's picture
Thu, 04/06/2015 - 18:31

Yes. Our position is very clear and made a lot more recently than in 2010. Given that, I'd be grateful if you could make the change requested. Thanks.

David Barry's picture
Thu, 04/06/2015 - 21:51

I would be really interested to know the reasons why PX has changed its position on this>

Is there a paper or report you could refer me to?

agov's picture
Thu, 04/06/2015 - 10:41

Adonis and Hutton "radical"? Is that a point of fact in the sense of meaning destroying the Labour Party by pursuing hard line Tory policies?

If academies are not a vehicle heading to a for profit school system doesn't seem much point for them to exist as they do no better or worse than normal schools. Although they do seem quite good at claiming credit for the work done by other people before the school was privatised academised.

Shaun Whitfield's picture
Fri, 05/06/2015 - 08:15

You've made two unreferenced assertions that you and PX do not support for-profit providers running state schools. This is in response to Janet Downs's (referenced, please note) comment to the contrary. However, after one minute's googling I found this statement on the education section of the PX website:

"1. A flexible education system. We seek to move beyond the sterile debates, developing policies that lead to a diverse education system, driven by the needs of parents and students rather than the obsessions of policymakers. We encourage a market orientated approach to education, accepting that public, private and voluntary all have a role to play and that they be regulated – rather than controlled – by government."

If PX encourages a '...market orientated approach to education, accepting that ...private...[has] a role to play...' it is reasonable to conclude PX and you would support a profit-making company running schools funded by the state.

Of course your posts above may be correct and I may be wrong, but if you make such assertions they should be supported by evidence/citations/references. You can't expect the reader to have to trawl through the PX website in an effort to find 'on the record' references stating that you or PX do not support for-profit schools. So, please could you reference these 'on the record' statements?

By the way, how's it going with Ofsted?

Jonathan Simons's picture
Fri, 05/06/2015 - 11:42

This is quite tiresome. The reference above is five years old. I am telling you, as the Head of Education at PX, that they and I do not support for profit in the sense as described....I am not sure how I can or indeed need to reference it beyond telling you what I think!

However, should you so be inclined, you'd be very welcome to pick up a copy of my chapter in Rob Peal's book, published all of 4 days ago, in which I say (footnote bottom page 73) "[to avoid the risk of being misunderstood] I should make clear that I don't think there should be a profit motive in mainstream education".

(This is entirely in keeping, incidentally, with the quote above - I do fully support a market oriented approach to education and accepting that the private sector has a role to play. When you say it is reasonable to conclude that this quote means that this supports "a profit-making company running schools funded by the state", I am telling you - as the author of that sentence - that it does not)

I remain slightly baffled as to why this is turning into a conspiracy and the change I requested has not been made. I would have thought that LSN and its commentators would both be delighted to welcome PX to what you see as your side of the argument, and also champion a facts based approach to debate as opposed to the ideology of which you accuse others. In that light, you should all want nothing less than to ascribe factually and carefully to other players in this space truthful motives and beliefs, no? I therefore ask - again politely, and now for a third time - that the erroneous reference made above be corrected.

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 05/06/2015 - 11:56

Jonathan - in 2012, Policy Exchange published 'Social Enterprise Schools: A potential profit-sharing model for the state-funded school system'

Also in 2012, a Spectator article by James O'Shaughnessy was reproduced on the PX website: '... we need to be open-minded and ask if the private sector can help. My belief is that it can, not by selling off the school or its assets, or any of the horror stories the left would have you believe, but by inviting education management organisations from every sector – profit or not-for-profit – to run these schools on behalf of their governing bodies, with payment related to whether they improve standards.'

Again, in 2012, in a link to a TES article, PX website quoted James Groves 'I certainly do believe that there is an appetite out there among for- profit providers, but they are unlikely to be shouting about it...The model being employed with the Breckland Free School is more like what happens in the US and it is more likely that we will see (this) in the future.'"

Earlier, in 2011, Neil O'Brien, PX Director, 2008-2013, wrote a Telegraph article (reproduced on PX website) : 'If the government wants to end public sector monopolies, it can't rule out using the private sector.'

I couldn't find anything saying PX ruled out running schools for profit. Could you provide links?

Barry Wise's picture
Fri, 05/06/2015 - 12:33

Jonathan Simons was appointed head of education at PX in late July 2013. Perhaps it's as simple as that - before 7/13 PX in favour of for-profits; after 7/13, not. Unless Janet has spotted an article published since Jonathan took up the job......?

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 05/06/2015 - 12:45

Barry - you could well be right. Nevertheless, PX has been strongly associated with support for allowing schools to be run by for-profit providers (even if it's just by outsourcing as in the case of IES Breckland). I'm pleased if PX is moving away from its earlier support.

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 05/06/2015 - 12:24

Jonathan - our comments crossed. I'm pleased you agree there should be no profit-motive in education in England but, as I've said above, previous PX publications have 'nudged' in the other direction.

It's unlikely the private sector would wish to become involved with the running of schools if there was no profit to be made. For example, Wey Education Schools Trust (WEST), was set up as a ‘vehicle’ by Zail Enterprises Ltd, a subsidiary of Wey Education PLC. Zail hoped the ‘school management model’, running free schools or academies, would help ‘generate long term profitability and a return to shareholders’.

As Sam Freedman once said, "They [for-profit education providers] are not interested for altruistic reasons. It's an investment,"

You imply the delay in printing a correction is down to deliberate foot-dragging. It isn't. My comments were an attempt to establish the facts. 'Blocking the Best' may have been published 5 years ago but it appeared to signal PX's future direction in nudging towards allowing for-profit providers to run English schools. And Michael Gove said at the report's launch he would allow groups like Serco to run schools.

I will add an addendum to the above article.

Shaun Whitfield's picture
Fri, 05/06/2015 - 13:02

It only becomes tiresome when it takes three posts from you and a lot of prompting from readers of this site for you to eventually refer to a source that (partly) supports your argument. However, whilst I now accept that you do not personally support for-profit state-funded schools, this still leaves the question of PX's current position on this issue. Janet Downs's article was silent on your personal view, and merely stated that PX supports for-profit state schools. Given the contradiction between what you assert and the contents of Janet Downs's further post, I am still in the dark as to whether or not PX supports for-profit state schools.

Shaun Whitfield's picture
Fri, 05/06/2015 - 13:07

Sorry, things have clearly moved on since my last post at 1.02pm.

agov's picture
Fri, 05/06/2015 - 16:30

"I am telling you, as the Head of Education at PX, that they and I do not support for profit in the sense as described"

I'm sure you're a splendid fellow but it's not actually about you, it's about the policies of 'Policy Exchange'. As "the Head of Education at PX" can you tell us, speaking for and on behalf of PX, in what sense 'PX' does support the profit motive in education? And also what does 'PX' mean by "mainstream" education as opposed to 'education'? And how does 'PX' (or yourself) differentiate between a "market oriented approach to education" and the price mechanism?

While I'm on the subject could you just explain when, where and how you came to feel that "this is turning into a conspiracy"?

And, "I would have thought that LSN and its commentators would both be delighted to welcome PX to what you see as your side of the argument" seems like a wonderful triumph for truth via contention (or conjecture and refutation as some might loosely say). Can you just confirm, as you seem to imply, that 'PX' formerly believed in and supported the role of "profit in the sense as described" within the education sector? And, if so, what exactly prompted this policy change?

[Reply test01]

John Mountford's picture
Fri, 05/06/2015 - 22:01

I came across this piece of unadulterated codswallop on the DfE website just recently. If anyone has any doubts about how serious this government is regarding its academies drive they should read these quotes from some already on board. It is clear to me that the SoS anticipates stiff resistance across a wide spectrum from people who are not in fact anti-academies but who know the truth, don't buy the hype surrounding the programme and believe, when like is compared with like, that it's all smoke and mirrors.


This one quote from 'Maura Regan OBE, CEO of Carmel Education Trust, which has 7 schools in the Tees Valley area' says it all for me,

"It is vital that there as few obstacles as possible in the way between education experts and struggling schools. In my experience the academy model allows fresh and innovative approaches to reach consistently struggling schools, allowing pupils’ education to be improved at an often rapid pace."

I'll own up, I've got a super-sized problem if one of the obstacles to be removed is the democratic right of local stakeholders to have their say in what happens in their neighbourhood.

When you happen to be waiting for Ofsted to hammer you on your stats, often in spite of what you may be doing to enrich the lives of your students, applying "fresh and innovative approaches" may appear rather more like a wistful dream than a beckoning reality.

I also want to know where this veritable army of 'education experts' is going to come from, with teachers at all levels leaving the profession in increasingly large numbers, and also, how can it work when maintaining a competitive edge plays such a crucial part in the emerging education market.

I'm also much more confident that people like Henry and Janet have done the number-crunching with such integrity that concepts like 'academies', 'rapid pace' and 'improvement' don't always correspond as convincingly as our enlightened leaders would like us to believe.

In short, Nicky, go tell it to the fairies!!

Janet Downs's picture
Sat, 06/06/2015 - 08:29

John - the DfE press-release accuses campaigners of 'refusing to provide important information'. But the BBC (2012) found the DfE had used intimidation to enforce conversion of primary schools. One of the tactics revealed in the programme was for a Man from the Ministry to ring up the school and tell them to expect conversion. No reasons were given and requests for reasons were refused. It was done by phone - no letters or emails therefore no paper trail. I would describe that as 'refusing to provide important information'.

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