Many academy chains would be classified as 'coasting' by the government's new standards
Academy schools were the flagship education policy of the coalition years, beloved of former education secretary Michael Gove. In May 2010 there were 203 academies open in England; there are now 4,676.
Academies were started in 2000, ostensibly to improve schools that served students from some of the country’s poorest communities. They are ‘sponsored’ by private providers, which many critics have said amounts to a stealthy privatisation of the state education sector.
Many of the schools are run in ‘chains’ – often by people who have donated significant sums to the Conservatives and therefore raising big questions about their true purpose.
Today a new report by the Sutton Trust, a think tank which aims to improve social mobility through education, shows that many academy chains are not meeting the standards that the Conservatives have themselves imposed.
In comparison with the national figures for all secondary schools and academies, the sponsored academies in their analysis have lower inspection grades and are twice as likely to be below the floor standard.
In 2014, 44 per cent of the academies in the analysis group were below the government’s new ‘coasting level’ and 26 of the 34 chains that the Sutton Trust analysed had one or more schools in this group.
Ironically the government recently stated that schools classified as ‘coasting’ would be forcibly converted into academies.
The report finds that the variation in standards between academy schools is huge. The best schools, it says, have a ‘transformational’ impact on the lives of disadvantaged pupils; in 11 of the 34 chains analysed disadvantaged students in sponsored academies outperformed the average for those in mainstream schools.
But the report found that four chains performed ‘significantly’ below average for their disadvantaged pupils – Midland Academies Trust, Diocese of Salisbury Academies Trust, the Learning Schools Trust and School Partnership Trust Academies. The Sutton Trust has shown that:
“A total of 14 academy trusts and chains out of 34 performed significantly below the average attainment across measures for all mainstream schools and academies, and three chains did so in terms of improvement for their disadvantaged pupils.”
The report therefore urges the government to expand its pool of school improvement providers beyond just academy sponsors to include new school-level trusts and federation.
It also calls for greater rigour and transparency for all sponsors – many of whom may have no educational background. Academies are not overseen by local authorities, meaning they are potentially less accountable than other kinds of school.
It also says that new chains should not be allowed to expand until they have a track record of success in improving their existing academies.
Professor Becky Francis, of King’s College London and one of the authors of the report, said today that despite the impressive achievements of some chains,
“A larger group of low-performing chains are achieving results that are not improving and may be harming the prospects of their disadvantaged students.”
Privatising education is one thing; bringing standards down by doing so is quite another, and this report should serve as a wake-up call to David Cameron, who has pledged to build 500 more academies by 2020.
Ruby Stockham is a staff writer at Left Foot Forward. Follow her on TwitterLike this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.