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Warwick Mansell

The former TES journalist writes for NAHT on current education issues. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of NAHT





Exclusive: sponsored academies seemingly faring poorly in inspections

If there is one type of school – perhaps other than free schools – which the Department for Education would like to be a success, it is the sponsored academy.

Ministers are very keen on these schools, which are often previously struggling non-academy institutions which have been transferred to a semi-private sponsor, usually to operate in a chain.

Indeed, so keen is the Government on them that the sponsored academy model is being put forward as the only possible solution in “forced academy” situations, where a change of the constitution of a school can be imposed despite very strong opposition from local communities. Extra funds are also made available to support sponsored academies.

Yet what is the evidence of their success? Well, they seem not to be proving quite the unanswerable solution to school improvement problems that often seems to be being implied by the DfE, particularly in the run-up to “forced academy” school transfers on the ground, when local communities are given the message that sponsored academy status is the only route to improvement.

Indeed, according to calculations I’ve just carried out, Ofsted’s official data suggests half of the sponsored academies subject to full inspections in the past year are deemed by the inspectorate as not good enough, having been given either a “requires improvement” or “inadequate” judgement.

Hard evidence of this comes in the form of data released by Ofsted on inspection verdicts for more than 6,000 schools inspected in the period September 1st to June 14th in the academic year just gone. This is interesting as it provides an overview of all schools’ results during almost all of the past academic year, after the inspection regime was “toughened up” under its latest incarnation under Ofsted. (I am grateful, by the way, to John Fowler, policy manager for the Local Government Information Unit, for pointing my way towards Ofsted’s raw data on this, though the analysis is my own.)

I fed the names of 731 “sponsored” academies – listed on the DfE’s website as open as of last month, into Ofsted’s latest available spreadsheet data (see http://bit.ly/16fQrme), which includes inspection results over this period, and found that those sponsored academies which were inspected in the past year had worse judgements, on average, than was the case for the sample as a whole.

So, over the period, some 64 per cent of the 6,523 schools inspected were rated good or outstanding (10 per cent were outstanding, with 54 per cent good). By contrast, for the 152 sponsored academies which welcomed the inspectors, only 50 per cent emerged in the top two categories (seven per cent outstanding and 43 per cent good).

Similarly, while six per cent of schools as a whole were rated inadequate, for sponsored academies, the proportion was nearly double that, at 11 per cent. To complete the dataset, nationally 30 per cent of schools had a “required improvement” judgement, while in sponsored academies; the comparable figure was 39 per cent.

Consequently, among the inspected sponsored academies,  half of those inspected in the past year had an inadequate or “requires improvement” judgement, which Ofsted considers unsatisfactory and which can begin the process of, ironically, a search for outside sponsorship, while in schools as a whole, the figure was 36 per cent.

To put it in raw numbers terms, in the period September 2012 to June 2013, only 10 out of the 152 sponsored academies inspected gained an “outstanding” judgement, which was more than outweighed by the 17 sponsored academies deemed “inadequate”.

The picture did not get much better for sponsored academies when I looked at inspection results for the largest chains of schools, with nearly a quarter actually receiving the lowest of Ofsted’s four grades: “inadequate”.

I looked at the inspection results of the 10 largest chains by number of schools open, as evidenced by the DfE’s “open sponsored academies” spreadsheet of last month.

Of the 49 schools inspected under that category, six – or  12 per cent – were given outstanding verdicts over the last academic year, with 17 (35 per cent) good, 16 (33 per cent) requiring improvement and 10 ( 20 per cent) inadequate. That’s one in five sponsored academies run by the largest chains inspected this year found to be inadequate.

Poor inspection results at the largest chain, the Academies Enterprise Trust, drove part of what must be – despite a slightly higher than average proportion of “outstanding” judgements - hugely disappointing figures for these organisations. The AET is listed as having 59 schools in the DfE’s July spreadsheet, nine of which were inspected during the period. Of those nine, four received “inadequate” judgements, two “required improvement” and three were “good”, with no “outstandings”.

However, many of the other leading chains also did not fare fantastically. For example, Oasis, the fourth largest chain, had five schools inspected, one of which was “inadequate”, three of which “required improvement” and one of which was “good”.

For the third largest, E-Act, there were four inspections, one of which produced an “inadequate” rating, with the other three resulting in “requires improvement”.

The Kemnal Academies Trust, a fast-growing academies chain which is currently the sixth largest chain with 17 schools, had only two inspected, but both were given “inadequate” verdicts.

For Ormiston, the fifth largest, the statistics were somewhat better, reading: three “outstanding”, three “good”, four “requires improvement” and one “inadequate”. United Learning, the second largest chain, had one “outstanding”, five “good” schools, two “requires improvement” and one “inadequate”.

All in all, then, this hardly adds up to overwhelming evidence of sponsored academies being the unequivocal answer where schools are felt to be struggling. If one were being charitable, these inspection judgements could be described as patchy. And, as stated above, they represent a worse set of verdicts, on average, than schools as a whole received. So it is difficult to see why sponsored academy status would be put forward as the only alternative for struggling schools, if ministers were taking seriously the verdicts of inspectors.

This is despite the fact that sponsored academy projects get extra funding when they start up, as illustrated again recently in this DfE document: http://bit.ly/13Tlw95

Indeed, if the largest of the sponsored groups, the AET, were a local authority, its results would be exciting a lot of interest from Ofsted. It is now possible to use Ofsted’s database (again, see: http://bit.ly/16fQrme) to track the last full inspection results of all schools which have had a full inspection in England. This incorporates not just judgements from the last year, as detailed above, but previous verdicts for schools which were not inspected this year.

The spreadsheet lists, among AET schools, one with an outstanding verdict, three rated good, three requires improvement/satisfactory and four inadequate. That’s a 36 per cent “inadequate” rate among the AET schools which had full inspection judgements on this data. Only three of England’s 152 LAs had worse rates for secondaries (all of the AET inspected schools were secondaries) were that, according to Ofsted’s data published alongside the schools spreadsheet.

I can think of a couple of arguments that sponsored academy supporters could fire back with regard to these statistics. First, the DfE’s routine line is that sponsored academies are often, almost by definition, taking over schools which were struggling in the past. It might not, therefore, be surprising if they still are struggling to produce inspection verdicts on a par with schools as a whole, which might be facing less challenging circumstances, on average.

That argument is fair, as far as it goes. But it would strike some, I think, as a bit rich if it came from sponsors whose raison d’etre has often seemed to be that they can make a difference, even in the most difficult of circumstances: they will succeed despite the odds, where others have failed. (The expectation that they will be more successful has been, after all, the justification for some quite drastic changes in the sponsored schools, including seemingly permanent changes in their constitutions and, often, a sense from at least some sponsors that the history of each institution should be forgotten about.) To put it another way, a sponsor or the DfE might describe non-academy schools achieving these kind of results and then citing challenging circumstances as excuses. It does not seem, therefore, a particularly fruitful line of defence for academy sponsors. In any case, should not a fair Ofsted inspection system be taking into account how well a school is faring, given its circumstances? For these are not raw academic results we are talking about it, but supposedly rounded assessments by inspectors on the qualities of schools as a whole.

But let’s be slightly more charitable, and consider not just the inspection results of these sponsored academies, but whether those results represent an improvement, no change or fall-back on the last set of inspections. This might be seen by sponsored academy supporters as a fairer test, as it would give an indication as to whether there is an improving trend.

But, again, the evidence even on this measure must be seen as underwhelming for sponsored academies.

So I looked at how many of the sponsored academies, among those which had more than one inspection judgement to look at, were improving. Three of the 63 academies in this category, or 4.8 per cent, had improved by two inspection grades between their last two inspections. 38 per cent improved by one grade, 43 per cent stood still and 14 per cent went down by one grade.

That sounds fairly respectable, and indicative of an improving trend. But it actually is little different to the picture for schools as a whole over the past year. True, a smaller proportion of this larger group (2.4 per cent) went up two grades between inspections. But the proportions going up one grade or staying the same was very similar to those among sponsored academies, meaning that 82 per cent of schools overall either achieved the same inspection judgement or improved at their last inspection, compared to the slightly higher 86 per cent among sponsored academies. That is a pretty marginal difference.

Or, it could be contended that the inspection sample size for sponsored academies remains relatively small. This is true, but the results are still interesting. And, of course, it should be noted that a much smaller sample size (24 schools) did not stop Mr Gove and the DfE publicising results of the first batch of inspected free schools – which happened to be significantly better than those of sponsored academies as a whole, and roughly in line with the population of all schools– recently. (http://bit.ly/1cflSPv)

Perhaps a final defence might be that looking at sponsored academy inspection results for the past year could obscure the fact that some of the chains already had large numbers of schools with “outstanding” or “good” ratings which were not inspected in 2012-13.

That certainly works with one of the chains: Harris, which has eight outstanding sponsored academies and one good one, according to Ofsted’s spreadsheets, when previous years’ judgements are included: only one of its schools was fully inspected last year, gaining another “outstanding”. The results of Ormiston, United Learning and the Ark chain also look better when pre-existing verdicts are taken into account.

But, surveying the 10 largest chains as a whole, the evidence as to whether, even incorporating judgements which stand from before last academic year, they are proving more successful in Ofsted terms than the sector as a whole yields equivocal results.

For while Ofsted data on England as a whole shows that, as of the end of June, 72 per cent of secondary schools were rated good or outstanding in their latest judgement from Ofsted, the comparable data for the 10 largest chains shows that five had higher proportions in that category, and five had lower.

Indeed, alongside the figures from the AET detailed above, the other four below-average performing chains all had fewer than half of their schools, among those with a full inspection verdict, currently rated good or outstanding. If they were local authorities, these kind of success rates would put them in the bottom 20 or so among England’s 152 council areas. With results like this in Ofsted inspections, it is especially hard to see why Ofsted persists in its policy of focusing inspections on local authorities with large numbers of schools achieving not-good inspections, but not academy chains in the same position. This is especially case as it seems that chains have much more control over what goes on in their schools than does the modern local authority.

In addition, these statistics will make the next annual report of Sir Michael Wilshaw particularly interesting reading. Last year, in his annual report, the chief inspector said: “The creation of sponsor-led academies has been largely successful, particularly when the sponsor has brought a high level of commitment and expertise to the venture.

“Many of the schools they replaced were seriously underperforming and some were dire. The sponsor-led academies have brought new leadership, rigour and, in many cases, a large measure of success.”

Yet, with Ofsted’s own latest statistics as quoted above, if ever good evidence were needed of that modern truism of English education, that changing school structures is no panacea when it comes to improvement, here it is. However, education policy at the DfE seems founded on the belief that this is not the case, and that “sponsored academy solutions”, as officials sometimes (http://bit.ly/1czhjQb) put it, should be pursued as ends in themselves when a school is facing difficulties.

Maybe at some point, figures such as these might prompt a rethink.




Page published: 14 August 2013