The scale of transformation in the school landscape has been huge. There are now nearly 4,500 open academies, compared to just 200 five years ago, and over 20% of mainstream state funded schools are academies. Though controversial, the policy has been undeniably popular. In fact, in the early days the conversion rate took even the Department for Education (DfE) by surprise, as it had initially planned for just 200 academy conversions a year.
As a result, in five years England’s school system has moved decisively away from being a locally administered structure, towards one that is controlled and funded by central government through contractual arrangements with thousands of providers.
During our discussion, the researchers’ views on this development were varied and nuanced (of course), but generally split down the now familiar lines of argument. Some contended that academies have been key to rejuvenating schools within a system which seemed, at times, to have lost its vim, its desire to innovate and its confidence. Others were more concerned about a perceived fragmentation of the school system, a decline in democratic control and effective oversight, and the disconnect between schools and local community – particularly in the growth of the national multi-academy chains.
When we tried to discuss actual outcomes, we were less sure-footed. It’s still early days, and emerging data points to a mixed picture. Analysis of 2013 GCSE results by the Local Government Association and the National Foundation for Educational Research found that the very first converter academies – already outstanding schools at point of conversion – made relatively strong improvements at GCSE level following conversion. Yet wider, longitudinal analysis showed “no significant difference in attainment progress after two years between converter academies and similar non-academy schools”, leading researchers to suggest that performance benefits are limited (at least) in the short term. Research by the Sutton Trust has praised some academy chains for their positive impact, but acknowledges that they do not have a uniformly positive effect. There have also been high profile failures.
On the crucial measure of performance of children from disadvantaged backgrounds, conclusive evidence is again not yet available. That said, recent analysis by the London School of Economics and the University of Manchester has found that the 2014 GCSE results showed bigger drops among lower performing pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds. While this is likely due in part to assessment reform, the increase in the number of academies – the government’s most significant educational legacy – has not coincided with meaningful reductions or reversals in educational inequity, despite good intentions.
As The Economist recently pointed out, where academies are run well they have a positive effect on standards. In other words then, just being an academy is not the transformative ‘magic bullet’ it has sometimes been held up to be. In The Key's recent State of Education survey, over half of school leaders agreed that more converter academies would have neither a positive or negative effect on the overall quality of education in the country.
A recent report by parliament’s education committee extolled the fact that there are now more good and outstanding schools than ever before, and acknowledged that the academy programme may have introduced a “competitive effect” that has contributed to this. However, it also warned the government not to exaggerate the impact academies have had when the evidence is mixed or simply not there. The same can be said for free schools, as Jonathon Simons of Policy Exchange found when he was quickly taken to task for overstating their benefits. At this point in time, we can only wait for more compelling and robust data.
But waiting these next few years will not mean carrying on as before. Of immediate concern for academies, like all schools, is the upcoming budgetary squeeze. As the Institute for Fiscal Studies has explained in one of its election briefings, regardless of who forms the next government, school budgets will come under strain after years of relative protection. For the academy programme, the impact could be significant. The Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy found last year that nearly 70% of academies had concerns about their current funding situation or had serious concerns about the future. While there’s no doubt that many maintained schools will find themselves facing difficulties too, the fledgling system for financial oversight of the academy sector will find itself under pressure, and will need to prove it can spot problems early on and respond swiftly. Only recently the National Audit Office called on the DfE to improve this aspect of its work. As scrutiny of the educational performance of academies increases, so do questions about their financial sustainability.
Members of The Key for School Leaders can find out what the main parties have said about academies and free schools in this article. If you're a member of our governor service, you can find out more here.