‘Rapid’ and ‘dizzying’ reform of English schools is ‘untested experiment’ at best, says CPR Trust

Janet Downs's picture

The academization programme is ‘at best an untested experiment’; at worst, it’s ‘an almost wilful throwing-away of aspects of the post-war settlement’ which helped create stability and success in England’s primary schools.  So argues Warwick Mansell in his report for the Cambridge Primary Review Trust.

Mansell argues such ‘rapid’ and ‘dizzying’ reform should be based on firm evidence.   But his report finds it is not.

Academy freedoms (aka ‘autonomy’)

  • International evidence cited by the Government is ‘complex’ and can’t be reduced to a simplistic conclusion on the virtues of autonomy.
  • In theory, academies can opt out of the national curriculum but league table pressure ensures academies follow it.
  • Academies in multi-academy trusts (MATs) can find their freedom ‘severely restricted’.
  • Some academy freedoms have negative consequences: admissions policies; related party transactions; governance by a very small number of people.

New system of ‘more local’ oversight

  • Eight Regional Schools Commissioners (RSCs) oversee academies on behalf of the Department for Education (DfE).
  • RSCs have been presented as devolving power.  But they are appointed civil servants ‘line-managed’ by the DfE.
  • The Education Select Committee criticised the RSC system.

New feature: the school takeover

  • Academization allows schools to be taken over by MATs with ‘very little transparency and little or no local democratic engagement’.

Has academization improved education quality?

  • Caution is needed when judging ‘improvement’ solely on exam results.
  • There’s little evidence from the secondary sector that changing a school’s structure improves educational quality.
  • The Education Select Committee said it’s too early to judge whether academization raises overall standards.
  • Very little research is available on how academization affects primary school results although Ofsted judgements of English primary schools, where academies are in the minority, are ‘more impressive’ than those in the heavily academized secondary sector.
  • Ministers cite figures showing sponsored primary academies improve results more than all other primary schools.  But the improvement rate is calculated from a lower base: results at previous schools were generally lower.

Mansell made four conclusions:

  1. As the Government has produced no evidence that academy status benefits pupils, major changes to the structure of English schools should only take place when their advantage for pupils has been ‘conclusively demonstrated’.
  2. Local democracy, local accountability and local support should remain for ALL state-funded schools unless there is ‘good evidence’ demonstrating why these should be abandoned.
  3. There should be ‘maximum transparency at all levels’ when decisions are made about a school’s future.  Stakeholders and taxpayers should know what evidence and what criteria are used when such decisions are made.   Meetings about school conversion or academy transfer should be public unless ‘compelling arguments’ exist.
  4.  ‘Serious questions’ remain about the consequences of giving academies freedom over admissions, finance and procurement, and whether academies’ governance ‘serves the public interest’.

This report is important and opportune given the Government’s declaration that all England’s schools should become academies.   Mass academization may not be in the best interests of pupils or England’s education system.

The report’s summary is here; the full report is here.

The myth, ‘Academies raise standards’ is debunked in our book ‘The Truth About our Schools’ available here at 20% discount.



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