Unacceptable regional attainment gaps persistby Ben Dobson / September 23, 2016 / Leave a comment
In 2000, David Blunkett pledged to redress regional “inequality of opportunity and disadvantage” by bringing together “business, the voluntary sector and central and local government” through the introduction of academy schools.
As they have grown in number—now representing 27 per cent of all state-funded schools—academies have increasingly formed supportive chains. With the government vehemently endorsing the expansion of the academy programme, it is important—if Blunkett’s vision is to be realised—to ensure high-performing chains have a strong presence in areas of poor education standards. Reform’s latest report, Academy chains unlocked, provides a blueprint for government to do just this.
The report draws on the first ever survey of chain chief executives, which garnered information from 66 chains responsible for around 700 schools. The survey findings, in combination with interviews with sector experts, highlight two main problems with current policy that must be addressed if expansion of the academy programme is to reduce regional attainment gaps.
First, high-performing chains face barriers to taking on challenging schools. Despite the vast majority of chain leaders reporting ambitious plans to take on more poorly-performing schools, one-third were found to have declined to take over a school when asked, for example, by the Department for Education (DfE). This contributes to regional pupil attainment gaps, as chains are currently reticent to take on schools in some of the country’s most challenging areas: expanding on the reasons for declining takeovers, chain leaders most commonly cited the location of the school, with school performance and finances also reported as concerns.
The government spent an estimated £62 million subsidising chains who take on schools deemed most in need between 2012 and 2015. It is not clear, however, that these funds have been effectively targeted on schools chain leaders would otherwise be unwilling to take on. The report therefore recommends that these funds be scrapped. In their place, a “struggling school premium” should be attached to schools that meet the criteria that currently deter high-performing chains from taking over, allowing strong chains to spread nationwide.
Second, despite greater autonomy driving much of the academy rhetoric, many chain leaders were found to be powerless to redistribute funding between schools. Government funding is currently paid to individual academies, who then…