At the start of his book on education, the Labour peer and former minister Andrew Adonis recounts one “drizzling autumn morning in 2000” when he visited the “deserted, dilapidated and vandalised” ruins of Hackney Downs School.
The visit was one of Adonis’ first since launching a new policy late in Tony Blair’s first term. The idea was to rid Britain of inner-city comprehensives like Hackney Downs and replace them with a new type of school: “academies”.
Adonis ended up spending the next eight years shepherding the project through the obfuscation and objection of teaching unions, many local education authorities, and parts of the civil service.
The programme is still controversial despite years of success.
Fourteen years later, the programme is still controversial despite years of success. Once restricted to setting up no more than ten new academies a year, Adonis left in 2008 with more than 100 open and 300 in the pipeline; seven years later around 60 per cent of British secondary schools are now academies.
But while Adonis oversaw the process, Lucy Heller is one of the key people who created the schools he envisioned. She is in her eleventh year as director of ARK schools, arguably the most successful academy “chain” in the country. The group manages nearly three dozen schools, and hopes to soon open its 50th.
Its results make clear why.
11 of its schools had a GCSE cohort in 2014. Of them, eight can be compared to a predecessor school which ARK replaced. Three others are schools which ARK has set up independently; which they term “free” schools (while they are set up through slightly different processes, there is, as the BBC and New Schools Network have detailed, “essentially” no difference between academies and free schools once established).
Comparing ARK’s 11 schools to their predecessors paints a clear picture. Their five longest running schools, all to the left of the graph, have dramatically improved the results of the schools they replaced.
In these schools ARK has had a number of years to improve on the performance of their predecessor – and has consistently done so. Burlington, to the left of the graph, is one of ARK’s oldest schools; their first GCSE year was in 2007. And for the past five years at least two-thirds of its students have received five “good” (A*-C) GCSEs.
All of the schools ARK has run for more than three years – Burlington, Walworth, Globe, Charter and St Alban’s – are above the 50 per cent level, and Charter’s turnaround has been unstinting.
Their three other converter schools are yet to improve on their predecessors, but are only in their first or second year since converting. Of the three new schools, King Soloman’s first time results were among the top 150 in the country, and inspired a section-leading feature in the Economist this month.
Overall ARK’s results are only in line with the national average, with around 58 per cent of pupils managing 5 good GCSEs. But that ignores the type of students Ark takes on: the majority of them are on free school meals – three times the national average – and ARK often picks up the education of these pupils with them more than a year behind on learning to read, write or add up.
These statistics are necessary because so much opposition to free schools and academies seems to ignore facts. The program is the decade-long project of a Labour minister who wanted to reinvent the comprehensive, not a ploy by Michael Gove to privatise British education.
But how has ARK succeeded? “The danger is that you come down to what sound like trite or facile formulas”, Lucy Heller tells me, when we meet in ARK’s spacious offices on Kingsway, the western border of London’s Covent Garden, in early September. She is cheered by this year’s results, which are less than a week old.
One idea she quickly focuses on is expectations. “Nobody but nobody boasts of their low expectations, but it all depends on what you mean.”
ARK has consistently improved on schools it has replaced after a few years.
At a lot of the schools ARK takes over, there is a “social worker approach to education”. There’s a “notion that, ‘What you can expect? These children are poor’”. To Heller, it’s “one of my issues with the left, which I count myself part of”. Instead, a strong and supportive central governor, which is what ARK effectively is, should demand performance.
“Ours is a harder job, but the ‘starting point is saying it can be done’.” Not every school Heller took over was receptive.
“If you look at a school like St Alban’s, which is one of our Birmingham schools, when we first started discussions with them, they were at 14 per cent [of pupils managing five good GCSEs]. It was, and had been for a long time, a very successful school; it really worked in very challenging circumstances. They actually got the results up to 31 per cent just before they became an academy.
“But when we had the first conversation with staff, I remember saying ‘Look within five years of becoming an academy we would expect you to aspire to an 80 per cent pass rate… and you’d see 100 Brummie arms cross, saying ‘I don’t think so’.”
The staff wanted to settle for 29 per cent – in line with the previous year’s results. ARK compromised at 40 per cent. In the end, with guidance from ARK’s then-head of education, Michael Wilshaw, now chief inspector of Ofsted, 50 per cent of St Alban’s pupils made the grade, despite being taught by the same staff and, unusually, the same head.
In the four years since then 60 per cent of St Alban’s pupils have managed the “passport” of five good GCSEs – twice as many as annually did when ARK took over the school. “To be fair to them, we haven’t actually succeeded” at getting to 80 per cent, Heller notes.
But such stories give credibility to Heller’s emphasis on expectations.
“It’s about creating an environment in which child can learn. Even the low-level disruption creates a culture in which it’s very hard.”
“There isn’t a kind of magic winding mill that turns out little robots who don’t have any empathy or social skills or whatever.”
“I’m the product of a not great London comprehensive, and I can still remember the shock of going to the local girls’ grammar school – and this is upper-sixth to sit exams for Oxbridge – and sitting in an exam and the teacher went out the room and looking up, because the automatic assumption [I had] was to talk.”
No one else did. The culture was to work.
Heller is wary of trite formulas, but are ARK’s guiding principles – “Exemplary behaviour”, “Excellent teaching”, “Depth before breadth” – not self-evident?
“Lots of people still would disagree… with that account of what’s important.” They would “bridle at the idea of ‘depth before breadth’”, and suggest you “have to deal with the whole child… that strict behaviour is repressive.” But “I think actually we are with the French in thinking structure liberates.”
Does focusing on the fundamentals risk creating limited children equipped to pass exams but without the character to thrive? Heller is “deeply sceptical” on the dichotomy.
“There isn’t a kind of magic winding mill that turns out little robots who don’t have any empathy or social skills or whatever. And certainly schools that fail to produce results are very rarely… it seems to be then it’s because they’re turning out great characterful individuals.”
The wider case Heller might have made is that by getting the basics right, ARK can then offer the breadth that the country’s best – and often private – schools offer. ARK’s website is filled with news of students performing Shakespeare, hosting basketball stars and hearing from guest speakers.
But while these issues may concern educationalists, the greatest opposition to academies is over the way they are managed, regulated and inspected. Governance is unglamorous and complicated but academies have made many opponents sudden experts.
Ed Miliband seems to be among them. Labour are, according to their website, proposing to:
“Introduce robust local oversight of all schools through new Directors of School Standards in every local area.”
Doing so could easily create a new layer of bureaucracy in local areas, and strangle academy chains like ARK which have prospered without new and vague “Directors”. It’s unclear whether the plans would leave governors “unambiguously in control”, which Heller stresses is vital.
Labour claims that the coalition have tried to “run thousands of schools from Whitehall”.
Labour claims that the coalition have tried to “run thousands of schools from Whitehall”, despite the Conservatives expanding a decade-old Labour policy which frees them from central command. Claims like this are a reminder of the conservative element in the Labour movement, which Adonis spent years appeasing.
To be more sympathetic, the coalition have also added a new form of ‘middle-tier’ regulation for academies, by creating a handful of “Regional School Commissioners”. Do Labour’s plans differ greatly? Well, as Laura McInerney, deputy editor of Academies Week, has noted, there would be far ‘Directors’ than RSCs, and the appointment process for them would leave “academies out in the cold”. It’s an “unwieldy” number which could make for a “headache of implementation”.
The details are complicated, but Labour’s stance is scarcely encouraging for an academy chain like ARK. There is little recognition from Miliband, their website or Tristram Hunt, their shadow education secretary, that academies have been a success.
It’s unclear whether Hunt will adhere to the rhetoric of his party’s more aggressive wing, but Heller is confident.
“I believe, possibly naively, if you build a great school, no politician will close it down…I want to be measured on outcomes.”
Going by results, it seems implausible that Labour could spend their precious early years in government re-regulating ARK or the academy sector. They have already committed to “transform vocational education”, with new and “rigorous qualifications” – a challenge which almost every government of the past 30 years has taken on. They won’t have the time to do both.
The party’s official stance may have much to do with the unpopularity of Michael Gove. Heller does think he became an unhelpful flag-bearer for the policy.
“One of my frustrations with Gove would be, once you got past some of the early days, actually there is a real middle ground where there a lot of people saying education needs reform… they may come from very different positions… but there’s a large group in the middle.
“What Michael Gove did, particularly towards the end of his time, was ruthlessly reject support from those deemed to not be true believers.”
Now she hopes both parties will “calm down some of the rhetoric”. “What I want to see is peace,” she tells me. It’s not clear whether Ed Miliband will have the courage to tell his base what many in his party believe: academies are a success to be developed, not a Tory trick to be attacked.