All three leading political parties are rightly pledged to address the educational attainment gap for socio-economic background. A key plank in this policy agenda for both the previous New Labour and current Coalition Governments has been academy sponsorship of struggling state schools (typically located in areas of social deprivation). As the academies programme has developed, academy chains have been promoted, having been seen by policymakers as best fostering professionalism, value for money and school-to-school collaboration across previously struggling schools.
There is an array of controversy around the purposes, suppositions and processes of the Academies Programme. Much of this is elaborated in the report of the Academies Commission, in which Becky had a role. But, has the policy strategy – and especially the development of academy chains – achieved its aim of positively impacting the attainment of disadvantaged young people?
We were commissioned by the Sutton Trust to answer this question. We found that the way you cut the data has a big impact – many chains have used qualification equivalences to boost numbers gaining 5 A*-C including maths and English; and therefore do less well when assessed against capped point scores, or the EBac indicator. Our findings present a mixed picture, showing that some chains are significantly outperforming the national average for mainstream schools, while others are significantly underperforming (even in terms of improvement rates, in addition to raw attainment).
Figure 1: Percentage of disadvantaged pupils achieving 5A*C including English and mathematics, 2011 and 2013Note: on this and the next subsequent graph, those chains shown in capital letters have three or more schools included in the analysis, while those in lower case have only two.
Of those 31 chains that have two or more secondary schools that have been within the chain since 2010, five chains have substantially improved outcomes for kids from disadvantaged backgrounds across a range of measures. Of these, two are relatively large chains – ARK and Harris (see Hutchings, Francis & De Vries, 2014). Both ARK and Harris have very high numbers of pupils on Free School Meals (over half of pupils on ‘Ever FSM’). Academisation has been resisted by many on the Left, with a resulting tendency to attend to the negatives rather than positives in outcomes. But, it is important to recognise and welcome successes in areas that have often been seen as intractable. For example, it is a national scandal that, of pupils with low prior attainment at KS2 (of whom a large proportion are from disadvantaged backgrounds), only 7% go on to achieve 5 A*C GCSE grades including English and mathematics. However, as the following table shows, the ARK, Harris and Barnfield chains have quadrupled this figure. Hence they are doing exceptionally well in securing decent progress and outcomes for the most vulnerable pupils.
Figure 2: Percentage of pupils whose prior attainment was below Level 4 achieving 5+ A*-C GCSEs or equivalent including English and mathematics, 2013
Of course, some other schools are doubtless attaining similar results. Nevertheless, it seems important for this transformational contribution to be recognised by those interested in social justice, and for educational research to investigate how some chains are achieving this success, and for good practice to be disseminated.
Meanwhile, some academy chains, and standalone sponsored academies, are doing very badly: their results for disadvantaged pupils are below the national average and have shown little improvement over the last three years (see Hutchings, Francis & De Vries,  for details). This is in spite of substantial amounts of public money having been targeted at these sponsors and their schools. There is a shocking lack of public transparency, and appears in some cases to have been a lack of due diligence (or even rigorous criteria) applied in handing schools to sponsors. The Academies Commission highlighted some of this poor practice, but more has come – and continues to come – to light since. Education Select Committee’s Academies Inquiry (on which Becky is a Special Advisor) heard how Prospects Academies were put on the DfE’s ‘capped’ list due to poor performance, yet were then handed a further school, only weeks before Prospects Academies was wound up. Research commissioned by the Select Committee from the Institute of Education also illustrates a range of conflicts of interest that have and are taking place in academy governance. While systems are being tightened, and Government is beginning to develop a new ‘middle tier’ to introduce an element of local system management for academies, there is an urgent need to ensure better practice if more sponsor academies and chains are to deliver their promise of improved outcomes and better quality education for children from low socio-economic groups.
Ofsted should be empowered to undertake formal inspections of academy chains.
The DfE should sharpen and make more transparent its procedures for awarding sponsorship, including rigorous benchmarks on convincing strategies and capacity for school improvement.
New chains should not be allowed to expand until they have a track record of success in bringing about improvement in their first academies.
The DfE should also continue to sharpen and make more transparent its process for issuing warning notices to sponsors, for capping chains, and publish its data on chain performance.
Funding agreements for new sponsors should be for five years rather than seven. And the government should not renew funding agreements where improvement has not been demonstrated.
The Government should learn and spread the lessons from successful chains. As the evidence on chains grows, the Government should commission research on the practices of those chains that are succeeding in raising the attainment of their disadvantaged pupils, so that lessons of success may be shared throughout the system.