Academies: a good model for the wrong reasons

March 19, 2010 at 10:54 am 11 comments

by Matthew Horne

An election is looming and the parties are trying to outdo each other when it comes to winning the votes of millions of parents. Despite some protestations to the contrary, Labour and Conservative policy is nearly identical on two points: academies are a good thing, and
we should have more of them.

History tells us to be wary of such promises. But Academies do offer the opportunity for radical innovation in the way schools are run. Will government be brave enough to really set them free?

Academies are attractive to politicians of all stripes because they appear to offer a relatively simple solution to an intractable problem: what do you do with schools that have persistently low standards of achievement? The current answer: create an Academy.

Academies have actually been around for some time: as ‘City Technology Colleges’ in the 1980s, and ‘City Academies’ 10 years ago. High-profile variations on the model exist in the US (Charter Schools) and Sweden (Free Schools). In England, academies are generally introduced in order to shut down and replace a failing school. Other countries tend to introduce them as new schools and let them compete with the existing government schools.

Academies are structural solutions – new institutions with distinct governance and greater freedoms.  The UK has a long and varied history of introducing structural solutions in the form of new categories of schools: comprehensive schools, grammar schools, secondary moderns, specialist schools, technical schools, sixth-form colleges, village colleges… All of these structures were expected to transform education when they were first introduced. Some have been more successful than others.

History tells us to be (at the very least) wary of structural solutions, and the current situation bears this out – a third Academy went into special measures in the autumn term.  There is no panacea or golden recipe to transforming the life chances and educational opportunities of a whole community, and any solution held to that standard will fail to achieve it. Critics have raised particular concerns that academies may not be accountable to the communities they serve because they do not need to follow traditional models of governorship, and these concerns are valid. However, the extent of accountability under the current model is also questionable.

On the other hand, many Academies have produced impressive results – in some, such as the Harris Federation in south-east London, the turnaround has been extraordinary. They are often popular, report high levels of pupil satisfaction, and about half of all Academies are overall ‘good or outstanding’ according to Ofsted. All very encouraging considering that they are likely to serve poorer communities. On the other hand, as Lisa Freedman observed in Prospect last month, research has so far failed to demonstrate that academies, taken as a group, produce better-than-average outcomes, despite significantly higher levels of investment.

However, the argument about the merits of Academies always produces more heat than light from both sides. We argue that the real lesson from Academies is not that they are necessarily intrinsically superior schools but that they provide schools with opportunities to innovate. It is these more favourable conditions for innovation that in the long run will allow educators to tackle cultures of low aspiration, under achievement, and social inequality, achieving long-term better results.

Academies have been given greater licence to innovate. They have important freedoms that other schools do not have. They operate under different governance arrangements. They have partnerships with other sectors such as universities and businesses hard wired into their governance. They have access to capital to remodel the school, create new offers, and reduce inequality. They can recruit staff outside of conventional pay and conditions arrangements.

So far, the evidence of innovation from some Academies is impressive: for example, the Harris federation has sponsored a group of ‘student commissioners’ who are undertaking a comprehensive evaluation of how teaching and learning take place across the federation – and the academies have agreed to implement all of their findings, while Milton Keynes Academy (sponsored by Edge) are adopting two hour lessons, six-week terms, and a curriculum focused on ‘learning by doing’ and engagement with business. Next autumn, Swedish Kunskapsskolan company will open its first two UK academies. Under the Kunskapsskolan model, students choose what to study, setting short-term and long-term goals for themselves with support from a learning mentor. On the other hand, many academies are deliberately (and in some cases defiantly) ‘traditionalist’.

After the election we can expect an expansion of the Academy programme, whichever party is in government. We can expect high performing schools to become academies, more new schools created and set up as Academies and possibly existing primary schools to become academies too. These offer a significant shift in the capacity of the school system to innovate and as such should be welcomed. However, there are a number of issues that a new government will have to address:

1. Should Academies be allowed to make a profit? Evidence from Sweden shows that new profit making providers have shaken up a previously conservative system of government-run schools. Several new providers have introduced much more progressive approaches to the curriculum and pedagogy, which have proved effective and popular with parents. It seems to us that, at the very least, cooperatives should be able to run schools and distribute a share of any profits to staff, and families who are members.

2. Should Academies be part of ‘chains of schools’? If innovation is to go to scale and children in other schools are to benefit from some of the pioneering work done elsewhere, then chains of schools could prove highly effective.  Recent research says that chains help to sustain education improvement in challenging schools, they help to develop and deploy the next generation of school leaders, and they provide some economies of scale. Innovation requires extra capacity, scale, access to capital, evaluation resources and diverse skills if it is to succeed. All of these are difficult for a single school to do on its own.

3. Should Universities become a mandatory part of the governance of the Academies? The separation of research and practice in relation to schooling has damaged children’s opportunities and experiences for generations. Evidence-based practice and research-led school improvement remain at the margins. Hard-wiring Universities into the school system (and paying them for their role) could overcome this historic problem.

4. Should they continue to be funded separately by central government? Most governments are drawn to the simplicity of funding schools directly from Whitehall. The supposed benefits of this arrangement are, however, illusory (otherwise they would be arguing for direct funding from the EU). Fundamentally, a system of Whitehall-controlled funding places these schools at the whim of new ministers remote from the communities they serve and the local systems of services for children, families  and learners that Academies must participate in.

5. Is government prepared to allow real diversity of provision is schools? For at least twenty years government have been using the rhetoric of diversity and choice in schools. However, diversity has, so far, been a sham: hiding behind our diverse school system are a one-size-fits-all national curriculum, standardised national tests, nationalised inspection and Whitehall funded initiatives and programmes. Academies could break the mould – a genuinely diverse group of providers, freed from central government constraints, free to offer different models of curriculum, pedagogy, and assessment, free to radically change the way schools are organised. Free to pursue a very traditional conservative model of schooling or equally free to pursue a very progressive and liberal model of education. The post-code lottery that would (inevitably) result from such a diversity should be embraced so long as schools are fully accountable for the outcomes and life chances of their students.

After all, it is children’s outcomes and value for money that are the destination. The structures are just the vehicle that has been built to get us there.


Entry filed under: Education & Children's Services, Innovation Policy.

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11 Comments Add your own

  • 1. David Bishop  |  March 21, 2010 at 1:15 pm

    To whoecer wrote the article what a well written commentary on the Academies situation, it has articualted many of my unstructured thoughts on Aademies in Enland thank you.

    • 2. Matthew Horne  |  March 22, 2010 at 11:28 am

      Thanks David

      I felt when Estelle Morris first introduced City Academies that it was pointless creating these structural solutions and ‘pepper potting’ them around in each local authority without trying to create better system around them that meant they could contribute to the improvement of all schools and participate in the improvement of children’s services for all the children in their area.

      Glad you liked it.

  • 3. Clive Peaple  |  March 22, 2010 at 7:22 am

    Sensitivty to developmental stages Opportunities to take blocks of learning/immersion on request Indvidualisation of learning paramount Integral better informed career paths Creation of jobs based upon individual student strengths rather than vice versatile

    • 4. Matthew Horne  |  March 22, 2010 at 11:30 am

      I think you are arguing for a more responsive and person centred approach to schooling – which I endorse. Hard to create when schools are constantly looking upwards to central government for their next target, direction, guidance and lump of funding.

  • 5. Ruth Sutton  |  March 22, 2010 at 1:29 pm

    Your rationale for the creation of Academies doesn’t square with my recent experience in the north-west of England where improving schools have been faced with the requirement to become Academies as the ‘price’ of planned school mergers which are a cost-effective response to unfilled places. LAs get support for major building programmes by giving way to pressure for more Academies.
    Question 1: on what evidence can you state that it is only poorly performing schools that are re-started as Academies?

    A further concern, again based on personal experience over the past five years, is about the choices made about leadership of new Academies.
    Question 2: How much influence is exercised by the DCSF over these appointments? Are local/existing Headteachers – especially in schools which are clearly far from failing – overlooked in favour of people who fit the current stereotype?

    The creation and early development of Academies in Barrow-in-Furness, Carlisle and Egremont, Cumbria have been fraught with dissent and errors, both strategic and tactical.
    Question 3: who is investigating the mistakes that have been made in these cases, and the unnecessary ‘collateral damage’
    that has resulted?

    One further comment: it seems to be ironic that Academies are regarded as a necessary route to free schools from the very control that has been exercised for several years by the government that is now promoting them. If national policy had been framed to allow schools greater freedom of action and autonomy to begin with, would we need to ‘liberate’ schools at this point. It’s not the emasculated Local Authorities that have hamstrung schools, but the national imperatives that LAs have had to defer to.

    The breezy complacency around Academies is misplaced. They are attractive politically because they offer seductively obvious and visible evidence of ‘change’ in some communities, often at the expense of their immediate neighbours. The issue of local under-achievement is far more complex than the Academy lobby will admit, and as a long-standing educator I ‘m far from convinced.

    • 6. Valerie Hannon  |  March 24, 2010 at 2:54 pm

      Ruth ~

      You comments are absolutely apposite and I am not sure that we at the Innovation Unit would demur too strongly at many of them. It would however be a mistake to read Matthew Horne’s piece as an uncritical support for existing government policy on Academies. You will see he points to some patent nonsenses: like the threat to convert failing schools into Academies when some Academies themselves are failing. And we concur that it is casuistical to pretend that the LAs have been the major constraining force, not central government. So the question really is: will (any) central government have the confidence to make good the windy rhetoric around diversity in secondary schooling and recognise that
      (a) innovation, as well as compliance to ‘good practice’ models, is imperative for the development of learning systems in the 21stC;
      (b) that the forms of support and challenge in such a context are different; and that
      (c) what we have not yet worked out is how to safeguard the interests of the least advantaged in such a (freer) system through a form of intelligent accountability.
      I concur entirely with your view that research needs to be undertaken – in a genuine spirit of learning from mistakes – into the collateral damage which has been done by forcing through this policy. However, our contention is that a more voluntaristic approach, which was predicated on schools and their communities actively seeking to develop new, more powerful ways to enable learning, would be welcome. Through that, we might avoid some of the absurdities of parents being encouraged to open new schools in areas where there is already over-provision.

    • 7. Matthew Horne  |  April 12, 2010 at 8:46 am


      Your first hand experience in the North West trumps mine. City Academies merged with the fresh start initiative as a way of pouring money into previously failing schools. Since then the government have used any excuse to force local authorities into accepting academies – whether as a condition of capital funding or school reorganisation. Where the UK is different to most other countries is that most of our Academies replace existing schools.

      I don’t know how thy recruit new leaders – I expect the SSAT could give a clearer a picture – although they could be complicit in the current model.

      Thanks for your comments, most of the collateral is local and hidden and I am glad you pointed it out.

  • 9. Denis Mongon  |  April 23, 2010 at 4:37 pm

    I enjoyed reading allthese comments and think that they have taken this conversation in a very interesting direction.
    I read Matthew’s piece much as Ruth seems to have and although he did point towards the ‘patent nonsenses’ which Valerie confirms (and to which I would add the social divisions which might be emerging around free schools in Scandinavia), he left me with the feeling that he thought the nonsenses were worthwhile on the grounds of the innovative potential of the Academy movement. It’s clearer to me now that Matthew’s thinking was more complex than that. I’d like to throw four points into the ring:
    First, the quality of teaching and learning is important. The collateral from poor performance, which Matthew describes as ‘local and hidden’, is not hidden if you are local. Tthe case for Academies is at best unproven on this and it is certainly not necessary to become an Academy to improve rapidly (some community schools do it very well)
    Second, leadership quality is important and my feeling is that it is more important than the structure and legal framework. Academies are like community schools, they are more likely to succeed under good leadership than under weak leadership. My worry here is that at the very time when (I guess) our shared view is that we need more leaders to be innovative and perhaps idiosyncratic problem solvers in their localities, the system of preparation and support for headship feels increasingly homogeneous and doctrinaire.
    Third: tere is no compelling evidence that Academies are more innovative than community schools – though some have networks of contacts that make it easier for them to raise the profile of their innovation. Surely the problem here is not primarily structural but cultural. Perhaps there are not that many risk taking Heads around but I doubt if we have evidence that the risk takers are drawn towards Academies.
    I’m such a slow typist, I’ve forgotten my fourth point.
    Perhaps the two key challenges are:
    how we nurture a next generation of innovative, leaders when we have just set in place a generation of mainly risk averse leaders;
    how we draw the local geographical and service communities into a closer liaison/alliance with schools – is there the evidence that Academies are better at that?

  • 10. thirup  |  May 27, 2010 at 9:48 am

    From our stats i can see that this blog and follwoing debate is still being read, so in light of recent events, i just want to throw this in to the discussion

  • […] Finally, from Harry Brighouse on Crooked Timber: Comments on a report that cautions against using test scores to evaluate teachers , and musings on the criteria the US is using to measure charter school performance (this last dovetails nicely with Matthew Horne’s thoughts on academies on our blog) […]


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