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Susan Young - Education Otherwise

Susan Young gives her weekly round-up of the issues and events in the world of school leadership and management. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of NAHT.


Academies, improving the system, and a much-misquoted report


Contrary to the impression you might get about the Academies Commission's report from the general coverage, it's not all about the possibility that schools are raising their achievement by choosing the children they admit.

Rather, it's a long-overdue examination of how this increasingly-important sector of the English school system is working on all levels, including improving attainment in individual schools and chains and with neighbouring institutions, how performance is being monitored -- and an analysis of how things should develop as academy numbers increase. It is neither a hatchet job nor a eulogy, which makes it not only very useful but highly unusual in the context of a policy beloved of politicians and actively distrusted in some quarters.

Moreover, the make-up of the Commission ought to ensure that the report's findings and contents are seriously considered at all levels, from the DfE to individual schools. As the last chief inspector for schools, appointed by the Labour government, chair Christine Gilbert may perhaps not be regarded as one of theirs by the current coalition leadership -- but her colleague, Teach First founder Brett Wigdortz, leads one of Michael Gove's favourite organisations.

But the report may still be generally ignored by politicians on both sides, because on the one hand it suggests more monitoring of what academies do and achieve, with firmer encouragement to co-operation and collaboration (counter to the government's current message of extreme laissez-faire) but doesn't demand a huge overhaul of the current system (which opposition politicians might find useful). It simply and pragmatically examines how to make the current system as good as it can be. If it is generally ignored, then that will be a great shame.

It's also a shame that of the coverage and comment I've seen so far, most is cherrypicking the report to support usual arguments for or against academies, rather than giving some consideration to the overall, sensible recommendations. Given the highly-political background of the policy both under the last and the current governments -- and the way in which academy status is being imposed on some schools --  this isn't entirely surprising. But it does rather miss the point that academies are now a major part of the English education system, taken for granted by many parents, supported (in one form or another) by all major political parties, and are therefore unlikely to disappear any time soon.

Whilst I'd highly recommend reading Unleashing Greatness: Getting the best from an academised system (available at http://www.academiescommission.org/?page_id=441),its 150 pages may not be a priority for busy school leaders at the start of term. I've precised a few highlights and recommendations below but sorry: it's still pretty long.

While the Commission has found evidence of "some stunning successes" among individual sponsored academies and chains, it says the evidence does not suggest overall improvement has been strong enough to transform the life chances of children from the poorest families, and that it is "increasingly clear" that academy status alone is not a panacea for improvement.

It says there needs to be a "new, determined focus" on the detailed implementation of the academies programme to ensure that it realises its "transformational potential" as more and more schools adopt this status.

It identifies "three imperatives", which are: a forensic focus on teaching and its impact on pupils' learning, an admissions overhaul to ensure that the system is fair and equally accessible to children from all backgrounds, and a greater accountability to pupils, parents and other stakeholders. These would make it much more likely that a rapid rise in academy numbers would create genuine and systemic transformation, says the report.

Transformational change in the classroom needs to be the focus of the next phase, it says, adding its opinion that a "fully academised system" is best seen as a community of schools, each independent but working best if connected to the rest of the system, and working together to accelerate school improvement.

So, the report says converter academies must meet the expectations for collaboration and school support set out by the Government in its 2010 White Paper, and that teacher development be supported by an independent Royal College of Teachers, to create more explicit links between research and classroom. "Pump-primed by the DfE, but completely independent from it, the College should have the encouragement of school-to-school collaboration, including peer challenge and support, as one of its key objectives," explains the report. Perhaps more controversially, the College would provide evidence to inform education policy.

The role of governing bodies is also crucial in an academy system, says the report, suggesting that recruitment needs to be more professional and rigorous and that governors from different schools should work together.


The commission also has useful thoughts on the future role of local authorities in a system where schools are increasingly independent. Pointing out that there is a "lack of clarity" about a new role, it says the Government needs to consider this "urgently" as part of its implementation of academisation. The report is not keen on creating a middle tier, but suggests a role as "champions for children".  LAs would scrutinise education provision to ensure it met local needs, report annually to the Education Secretary on school quality, ensuring early warning of any emerging issues, and be the lead body for planning and commissioning school places. Academies and groupings should form new relationships with the LA to ensure they all contributed to planning and development.


The Commission believes that over a period of three years, local authorities should phase out all their own provision of school improvement services and devolve them to school-led partnerships. As part of this, the government should consider a "more systematic approach," inviting the National College to trial a number of school-led excellence networks in some regions designed to develop capacity and ensure support for schools which need it.

Professional associations and teaching unions could contribute to these networks, being uniquely placed "to help improve and develop schools and, in doing so, to ensure academisation and improvement are inextricably linked." Ofsted should help by judging school leadership as outstanding only if a contribution to system-wide leadership can be shown, and reducing inspection if inspectors found a school's own self evaluation was both sound and underpinned by rigorous, external peer review.


Also of interest to school leaders should be the suggestion that local and national government should encourage the federation of primary schools without emphasising academy status.


On its second "imperative", the commission wants more support for fair access and suggests that the education secretary should develop an admissions system which "allows parents some independent recourse in terms of their relationship with an individual school, or each academy trust, acting as its own admissions authority." There should, says the report, be a "common footing" for admissions for maintained and academy schools, and an independent appeals service. In addition -- and here's one of the bits that dominated the news coverage of this report -- that each academy should publish comprehensive data on those who apply for places, and those who get them.


On its third imperative, accountability, the report is suggesting that academies should offer "regular and formal reporting," which might mean an annual report and a real or virtual open forum. It would like to see a new selection process for sponsors, suggests funding agreements be reduced from 7 to 5 years, and says there should be an annual report comparing their performance.


That's long enough for a blog but only covers the main points of a report which is extraordinarily through and, as far as I can see, scrupulously fair about one of the biggest experiments in English education policy in the past few decades and the tweaks which need to be made to ensure that it is truly transformative for pupils.


With many reports, I see my job as an education journalist as being to read them so that busy professionals don't have to. In the case of the Academies Commission's report, I've read it so that you don't have to -- yet. But it contains so much useful detail, thoughtful argument, and potential roadmaps for improving the current system that I'd urge all school leaders to try to find the time to read it for themselves if possible.


Susan Young is an education journalist



Page published: 11/01/2013