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1 March 2014

Why was the government’s academies programme so rushed?

It’s unfair to equate the failure of providers such as E-Act with the failure of the whole academies programme. But if academies had been introduced more slowly, could this have been avoided?

By Jonn Elledge

You wouldn’t always know it from our intensely tribal national education debate but academy schools are a pretty diverse lot. Some are good, some are bad; some radical, some traditional. Some operate in splendid isolation, others are managed as part of a much bigger chain.

E-Act is one such chain. Whether it’s any good at managing schools or not has been a matter of some debate, but what is clear is it’s had a pretty chequered history. Its one-time boss, Sir Bruce Liddington,  regularly used to make headlines not for the quality of his schools but for the size of his pay packet. What’s more, last year it received a damning write-up by the Education Funding Agency, in which it was accused of poor financial management and a “culture of extravagance”.

This, though, may count as an even worse week for E-Act – for on Monday night it emerged that the chain was to give up 10 of its 34 schools after they performed poorly in Ofsted inspections. The Department for Education’s official comment on the matter is diplomatic to the point of narcolepsy, saying that it “welcomes” the chain’s decision to “hand over a number of their academies to new sponsors”. But it is, shall we say, unlikely that E-Act itself initiated this move. It has underperformed, and as a consequence has just lost 30 per cent of its schools.

If some academy chains are struggling, though, the DfE’s own policies must share the blame. To explain why, we need to go back to what an academy is.

Academies are schools that have been taken away from their local authorities, either to become stand-alone trusts or part of a chain. This, though, has downsides – loss of support, economies of scale and so forth – and anyway all the research says that schools do best where there’s an “intermediate tier” between school and government, which can keep an eye on them.

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Because the government was so determined to entrench its educational revolution, however, the number of academies has gone through the roof. Before the 2010 election there were around 200 academies; there are now well over 3,000. Not all of these have a chain behind them but ministers have been determined to make sure that any that are struggling do: new management, it was thought, would give them a much needed kick up the backside. The result has been some serious pressure on chains to take on more schools.

The problem is, however, that these groups can only grow so fast. Improving an underperforming school takes both time and money (recruiting better staff, managing out poor ones, changing the culture and so on). And, the more determined you are to improve a school, the more time and money it’s going to take. The best chains, then, have tended to be reticent about growing too quickly.

If you’re not that fussed about how the schools perform, though, it’s much easier to say yes to every school you’re offered. In other words – don’t worry, we’re getting to the point now – struggling schools have been disproportionately likely to end up in the hands of chains who were less motivated by educational brilliance than empire building.

In 2012, consultant Robert Hill wrote a lengthy research report on much of this for the National College of School Leadership. A couple of weeks back he wrote a blog making a related point, under the telling headline “Quality not quantity is the litmus test for academy chain expansion”. Those chains that were “committed to making a fundamental difference to the schools they took on”, he wrote, “felt that they were being penalised when presenting comprehensive plans for dealing with the root cause of a school’s weakness. Governors and local authorities were opting for softer options from chains that were flavour of the month.”

In other words, school bosses themselves were baulking at the idea of a chain that was going to implement radical reform, opting instead for those who’d be happy simply to change the sign above the door. And the DfE, determined to make as many schools academies as quickly as it could, acquiesced. All this means that, the more determined a chain was to implement the interventions needed to improve a school, the less likely it was to be given that school in the first place.

Not for the first time, the main barrier to a policy’s success has been the speed at which the government wanted to implement it.

The news about E-Act has been greeted in some quarters as a sign that the entire academies policy is failing. That, though, is unfair. As ever, the ways of the DfE are mysterious to mortals, but its promise of swift action to address under-performance in all schools, “no matter who controls them”, should be taken as A Good Thing. But I can’t help but feel that it’d be less likely to need such action if it hadn’t been in such a rush in the first place.