Academies: a good model for the wrong reasons
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.