The new government has just promised 2,000 more academy schools. Is this a sensible policy? Despite the huge sums invested by Labour, their performance has been patchy
Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families Ed Balls, open the City Academy, Hackney
Twenty-five teenagers are silently studying in a bright classroom. The headmaster enters and they rise to their feet, immaculate in their grey uniforms. “Good afternoon, sir,” they chorus.
It’s a scene out of a Ladybird book, but this is Mossbourne Academy, a secondary school in a part of Hackney, east London, dubbed “murder mile” for its gang killings. Mossbourne was one of the first “academies”—the new type of school aimed at the educational underclass.
The school Mossbourne replaced, Hackney Downs School, had educated Harold Pinter and Michael Caine in its grammar-school heyday. But by the mid-1990s, it was so bad that the tabloids called it “the worst comprehensive in England.” It was closed down in 1995. Nine years later, Mossbourne rose from its ashes with new Mondrian-style buildings by the Richard Rogers Partnership, a knighted “superhead” in the form of Michael Wilshaw, and a £2m subsidy provided by Clive Bourne, a local boy who made his fortune in freight shipping. Last summer, Mossbourne’s first intake of students took their GCSEs and it made the headlines again—this time for delivering some of the best state school results in the country.
How was this achieved? Like all academies, Mossbourne is a non-selective, all-ability secondary school. But academies take a radical approach to school administration. Their defining characteristic is their freedom from local authority control—instead, they are managed by a sponsor, who appoints a board of governors. The governors choose the head and take responsibility for administration. Academies receive funding directly from central government, are given new buildings, and are encouraged to innovate in teaching, pay and the curriculum.
Labour launched the academies programme in 2000 to reach the significant minority of children leaving school without basic qualifications. David Blunkett, then education secretary, said academies would “target seriously failing schools” and “break the cycle of underperformance and low expectations.” But from the start, he met fierce opposition. Critics said academies were locally unaccountable and would create a two-tier system with their unfair advantage in admissions, exclusions, salaries and funding. The influence of the sponsor on the curriculum and balance sheet was also questioned.
The government, however, ranks academies as one of its successes. It hopes to increase the number in England from 203 at present to 400 by 2012—more than one in ten secondary schools. The Tories’ education policy also embraces academies. Yet despite this political enthusiasm, research on academies by the National Audit Commission and the Sutton Trust has been tepid. The annual studies conducted by PricewaterhouseCoopers for the government have been too—its 2008 report found “insufficient evidence to make a definitive judgement about the academies as a model for school improvement.”
The lack of evidence is because academies are still fairly new—and in their brief lifespan have undergone more changes than a burlesque artiste. For example, academies no longer simply replace underperforming schools, nor are they solely located in disadvantaged areas. Under the Brown government, some of their curricular independence has been curtailed. The role of the sponsor, which originally involved a contribution of £2m, has become a more advisory one, which can be undertaken at no cost by universities, private schools and, ironically, local authorities. And while academies have new buildings, many local authority schools do too, courtesy of the £50bn Building Schools for the Future programme. There is, then, no longer an “academies model,” just a collection of diverse schools—many of which do not yet deliver better results. The government’s minimum standard for a school’s GCSE results is 30 per cent of pupils achieving five A*-C grades, including English and maths. The national average is 50.7 per cent and academies were meant to reach it within four years of opening. It was an ambitious target and many academies are still falling short (see box, p46).
Stephen Gorard, a professor of education research at Birmingham University, argues that academies owe part of their success to fewer students eligible for free school meals (a measure of poverty) in their intake. Astute parents are quick to spot an improving school, edging out the poorest families. Since there is a strong correlation between intake and achievement, results rise, regardless of what academies do. “There is no clear evidence that academies work to produce better results than the kinds of schools they replace,” says Gorard. “But neither is the evidence as clear as it was that they are… failing to do so.”
Some academies have done astonishingly well. Nearly half of Mossbourne’s pupils are on free school meals and 30 per cent have special needs, but 84 per cent of 2009’s cohort gained five A*-C grades in their GCSEs, including English and maths. It also topped the league tables in value added—the measure of improvement since pupils started at the school. Even so, this isn’t all down to its academy status. Headmaster Michael Wilshaw, now in his mid-sixties, started teaching in Docklands in 1968, when the area was full of dockers rather than bankers. In 1985, he took over St Bonaventure’s RC Secondary in Newham, an all-boys comprehensive on the brink of special measures with a deprived primarily Afro-Caribbean intake. By 2000, over 80 per cent of pupils sitting GCSEs received five A*-C grades. No Richard Rogers buildings, no millionaire sponsor—just an inspirational head who knew how to tackle the problems of the inner city.
Maria Leaf teaches at St Bonaventure’s. She was there when Wilshaw was in charge. “It felt like a 1950s grammar school. My son was only eight, but I thought I wish I could have this for him.” Her son is now 15 and at Mossbourne. “When he went into Year 7, he was barely getting the national level at maths; he’d just scraped science. He saw himself as unacademic. Now he wants to do physics and chemistry at A-level.” Wilshaw is also education director of the charity Ark, sharing his expertise with the eight academies it runs.
Other academies haven’t fared so well. The United Learning Trust (ULT), an Anglican charity, runs 17 academies and is the country’s largest sponsor. Last summer, three of its London academies were at the bottom of their local tables in GCSE results. In Sheffield, Ofsted recommended special measures for one of its academies and told another that “teaching and learning are inadequate.” In November 2009, ULT was told by the government that it couldn’t expand further until its existing schools improved.
Northampton Academy is one of ULT’s more successful schools. Like Mossbourne, it opened in 2004. It replaced Lings School, where truancy rates were high and staff absenteeism was costing £290,000 a year. In the six years prior to the ULT takeover, GCSE results averaged 19 per cent with five A*-C grades. Last summer, they were up to 40 per cent. Richard Tice, chair of governors, works in international property investment and thinks the business world provides a parallel for ULT’s patchy performance. “In any successful business with 17 divisions, you’ll get 17 managing directors. Not all will move at the same pace. Inevitably, the bigger you get, one or two will fail.” Tice, a patrician figure in an elegantly cut suit, was a trustee at the public school Uppingham. And Northampton Academy has been a steep learning curve. “No training in business or the independent school sector could have prepared me,” he says. “Northampton’s not a bad town, but behaviour when we took over was appalling. Pupils were setting fire to other students’ hair and running across the roofs of staff cars.” Tice appointed a former public school housemaster (and a former bishop) as head, oversaw the move into £27m buildings and supported a number of experiments. “Some have worked and some haven’t. In the first year of entry, we now keep pupils in their own classroom and put more emphasis on literacy, since many arrive with reading levels two years below expectations. We’ve also set up an exclusion centre. Before, it took six weeks for the local authority to pick up an excluded child. In the meantime, they were wandering the streets.” Not every innovation has worked. “We tried hiring teachers from India and Australia, but they couldn’t cope. In India, you get 60 children in a class, but you also get total silence.”
Tice is the author of “Academies: a model education?” a report published by the Conservative think tank Reform. In the report, he advises stopping staff malingering, terminating staff contracts and reducing appeals against pupil suspensions and exclusions. He wants parents to sign and pay for a discipline contract, because “people respect and value what they have paid for.” Recruitment policies include importing heads from non-teaching backgrounds and hiring unqualified staff who are given “on-the-job training.” Many of these recommendations would be unpopular with the teaching unions.
Yet Wilshaw has delivered results at Mossbourne without angering the unions. “If you prove what you’re doing is fair and equitable, there’s rarely a problem,” he says. His techniques are old school. At Mossbourne, detentions are commonplace—for uncompleted homework, forgotten games kit, or being more than ten seconds late when the morning whistle goes. Mossbourne has eight applicants for each place— children are tested prior to entry and accepted on the basis of four ability bands. Once they arrive, they are set according to ability, with smaller classes for the lowest achievers. The special needs provision (often a weak point in comparable schools) is outstanding. Pupils are drilled into exceptional study habits. Wilshaw has a team of experienced teachers who followed him from St Bonaventure’s and also young and keen newcomers. “We constantly observe what happens in the classroom: we use peer assessment; we use pupil tracking; we ask Ofsted in to give us advice; we ask the kids: we keep the doors open.”
The question of how well academies have performed or how they operate may be less relevant than why they exist at all. The reasons are strongly political. The roots of academies lie in the city technology colleges (CTC) initiative, introduced by the Tories in the mid-1980s. These schools were the first to be entirely free of local authority control. In education as elsewhere, the Thatcher government strove to diminish the power of local authorities. Its 1988 Education Reform Act created local management of schools (LMS), redistributing financial control from local authorities to heads and school governors. “The biggest difference to my life as a head,” says Wilshaw, “was LMS. Before that you had to apply to the local authority for everything—the colour the room was painted to the textbooks you bought. LMS gave power to people on the ground.”
Labour has centralised both academic and economic control of schools. Local authorities now retain just 10 per cent of the education budget and it seems unfair to continue to cast them as the wicked fairy in the standards pantomime. Why, then, did Labour feel academies were so necessary? Education writer and former New Statesman editor Peter Wilby feels there are two major reasons, both characteristic of the Labour years: “The main factor was rebranding. It’s a marketing exercise, like changing the name of Windscale to Sellafield. You take a failing school, give it glossy buildings and a new head and even people who are quite savvy think this must be fantastic.”
The second was new Labour’s admiration for the private sector. Stephen Ball, a professor at the Institute of Education, says: “Academies are one of a number of small steps under new Labour leading to the dissolution of the state system, a system in which education will no longer be organised and delivered by the local authority, but by private providers.”
Academies, like CTCs, were meant to cement the link between schools and business. But while CTCs largely replaced high-performing schools, academies were there to inspire underachievers. Education secretary Ed Balls has referred to academy sponsors as “hero entrepreneurs” who “embody the values of new Labour: the possibilities of meritocracy, of achieving success from modest beginnings.”
Wilshaw found his sponsor, Clive Bourne, who died in 2007, well cast in the role of hero. “It’s wonderful to have someone focused on your school, in a way that a local authority, responsible for 150 schools, simply can’t be. Clive Bourne opened up a huge network of new people who could help us.” But not all sponsors have had an entirely positive experience. Amir Bhatia, founder of the academy chain Edutrust, was forced to stand down from the board of his academies trust in March 2009 after a government inquiry revealed that the trust had misspent some £70,000, most of it in excess rent to the Ethnic Minority Foundation, of which Bhatia is co-founder and chair.
Academies were also inspired by the old Labour values of education as emancipation, the ideal of a good school on every doorstep. They were introduced by David Blunkett, whose own childhood shaped his view that poor students deserved better. Under his long watch as education secretary (1997-2001), he also oversaw the introduction of education action zones and Fresh Start, another initiative aimed at the lowest-attaining schools.
Michael Barber helped to shape the academies programme with the then schools minister Andrew Adonis. A former teacher, Barber was chair of education at Hackney Council during the turbulent final years at Hackney Downs. He believes in academies. “Not every school is a success, but the evidence in favour is clear cut,” he says. “The most successful schools tend to be those which started as new schools, rather than those which took over existing ones.” Barber has no difficulty with the high spend involved. “I don‘t see how people who come at it from a social justice perspective can think otherwise.” But not everyone believes that pumping extra money into areas of acute deprivation is the way to improve equality of opportunity. Unequal funding is one of the controversial aspects of academies. The government insists they don’t get more money per pupil. But in the early stages they do receive extra start-up finance, to date this has been up to £500,000 and other schools feel they lose out. Leaf knows cash matters. “At St Bonaventure’s, we’re always holding non-uniform days to raise funds. At Mossbourne, it’s all state of the art.”
One final argument for academies is that they extend parental choice—a recurring theme for both Labour and the Tories. The idea goes back to reforms of the 1980s which were intended to raise standards through the creation of a quasi-market. Not only were schools freed from dependence on the local authority, but parents were given league tables and exam results to select the best schools.
My children attended primary school in Haringey, one of London’s poorest boroughs. But when I came to fill in the “pan London” secondary-school transfer form, I had a bigger selection than at my local Sainsbury’s, including academies. The 50-odd children in my eldest son’s primary school class went to 21 different state secondaries. Although variety was hardly the issue, deciphering the small print of the system was.
The Tories are even keener on academies than Labour, and plan to make the process of opening them simpler. They too believe academies address the issues of standards and choice, and they like the external expertise which is supposed to increase the chances of finding or moulding first-class heads backed by superior management teams. But Conor Ryan, a former adviser to Tony Blair and Blunkett, advises caution. “Academies won’t develop organically, there has to be national co-ordination.” He’s also concerned about capacity. “The Tories have said they intend to add 220,000 school places, but there will be problems of funding. It’s hard to see how they can redistribute the money without other schools losing out.”
David Cameron unveiled his education policy at Mossbourne, but academies are unlikely to be a major factor in the general election. Maria Leaf is one voter unlikely to be swayed. “It’s all about the head,” she says. “The Petchey academy, half a mile down the road from Mossbourne, has new buildings and a lot of money, but I wouldn’t send my son there.” Proof, if you like, that choice works, and that when academies work it is not necessarily for the reasons given.
Top of the class
- The graph shows that when Labour came to power, 1,600 schools in England (almost half the 3,500 secondaries) did not attain the minimum standard of 30 per cent of pupils gaining at least five GCSE A*-Cs. In 2009 the figure was down to 270, but the fall is not solely due to academies.
- Of the 120 academies which received GCSE results in 2009 only 22 achieved the national average of 50.7 per cent; 42 didn’t manage the 30 per cent minimum.
- “Contextual value added” gauges how pupils improve after starting in Year 7. The baseline score is 1,000 and of the 120 academies sitting GCSEs in 2009, 77 scored above that figure; 43 did not.
- There were almost 8,000 pupils from socially deprived backgrounds attending academies in 2007—just under a third of the total.
- On average academies received three applications for every Year 7 place available in 2007.
- Heads’ salaries are, on average, between £18,000 and £32,000 more than the £74,000 average for local authority schools.
Sources: DCSF and PricewaterhouseCoopers
Lisa Freedman is an education writer and runs At The School Gates, an educational consultancy. www.attheschoolgates.co.uk