Getting more from academies

Unacceptable regional attainment gaps persist

September 23, 2016
Mossbourne Community Academy, the successor to Hackney Downs School, London ©Tarquin Binary
Mossbourne Community Academy, the successor to Hackney Downs School, London ©Tarquin Binary

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 pay a proportion to their chain. Though chain leaders can, in theory, “pool” the funding of all their schools, and distribute it as they see appropriate, 80 per cent report not doing so, despite 30 per cent wanting to. This prevents them from channelling funding from their better-off schools to provide additional support to underperformers, enhancing disincentives to take on schools most in need.  The most common barrier chief executives describe is resistance from the schools with comparably favourable finances.

The report recommends that funding for all schools be given to the chain rather than individual schools. This would allow chief executives to redistribute funding from the least to the most in need schools, softening the barriers the most challenging schools currently present. It would also enable the system’s significant financial reserves—much of which currently sits with individual schools—to contribute to reducing regional attainment gaps.

The success of academy schools so far has been inconsistent, and unacceptable regional attainment gaps persist. If the planned acceleration of the academy programme is to realise its original vision, ensuring high-performing chains reach areas of poor performance must be a priority.