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The Sutton Trust report Chains Effects 2015, published today, makes clear that there are serious problems with many of the academy chains: "far from providing a solution to disadvantage, a few chains may be exacerbating it".
The government, and its supporters in the media, are likely to focus on the small number of high-performing chains that the report finds are performing better than schools overall. However these represent less than one in five of the sponsored academies that were included in the study. Even the strong results of these few chains may, as the report suggests, be explained by the fact that most are London focused and benefiting from the better performance of London schools.
The government plans to convert "inadequate" and “coasting” schools to sponsored academies. Yet this report reveals that 15% of sponsored academies covered by this report are currently rated "inadequate" by Ofsted (compared to 6% for secondary schools overall) and that no less than 44%, four out of every nine, would be classed as “coasting” according to their 2014 results.
This could be partly explained by the prior low attainment that led to these schools being converted. However the report only includes schools that had been academies for at least three years, and some for much longer. In this light it comments, in what may be an understatement, that these figures "seem quite disappointing".
The conclusions are stark: While there are some chains demonstrating "impressive outcomes", "a larger group of low-performing chains are achieving results that are not improving and may be harming the prospects of their disadvantaged students".
Underperformance of the lower achieving
The most robust analysis in the report is that which compares the improvement in results in academy chains with schools that started with similar results in 2012. It is this analysis that leads the report to the conclusion that some chains are harming the performance of the most disadvantaged, and showing no capability to improve. The study split schools into five equal groups (or "quintiles") by 2012 GCSE results.
Of the nine academy chains in the lowest quintile for results in 2012, four did significantly worse and none did significantly better than schools overall, in terms of the change in GCSE results for all pupils from 2012 to 2014.
(Across all quintiles, six academy chains did significantly worse and five did significantly better than schools overall for the improvement in results for all pupils.)
Of the four academy chains in the lowest quintile for results in 2012, all did "significantly worse" than schools overall, in terms of the change in GCSE results for disadvantaged pupils from 2012 to 2014.
(Overall, across all quintiles, nine academy chains did significantly worse and five did significantly better than schools overall for the improvement in results of disadvantaged pupils.)
This is a serious concern. For the most seriously "underperforming" schools, the fact they are part of an academy chain is resulting in significantly worse improvement than if they were still maintained, in the local authority sector. This is especially the case for the most disadvantaged pupils.
Will the government listen?
Those high-performing chains that are improving at a significantly faster rate deserve praise and recognition. However they are few in number. The performance of other chains is very worrying. For the most seriously "underperforming" schools, the fact they are part of an academy chain seems to be resulting in significantly worse improvement than if they were still maintained, in the local authority sector. The report is clear that action must be taken.
As the report recommends, will the DfE “act to remove academies from failing chains”? Will it put aside ideology and place those schools with whatever body is best able to help them, whether that is another chain, the local authority or a federation?
As the report recommends, will the DfE ensure chains cannot expand unless they have a track record of success? Or will they endanger the future of those schools by placing them with academy chains that are either performing at the average or underperforming?
I would not be surprised if the government's main response to this report is to focus only on its praise for the small number of high-performing chains. If it does so, and fails to act on the reports recommendations to deal with the poorly-performing ones, then it seems it is unprepared to base its policy on the evidence and unprepared to act in the best interest of our schoolchildren.