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Academies and Spiderman: the inevitable comparison

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Cast your mind back, if you will, to 2002. South Korea and Japan hosted the world cup, Graham Coxon left Blur and Tobey Maguire was Spiderman (he was 27 at the time, by the way. Playing a high school student. This is arguably more unrealistic than a spider bite giving you superpowers). More importantly, it was also the year the first academies opened in England.

Cut to the present day and we’ve just found out that every school in England will have to be an academy by 2020 (or have a plan in place to convert by 2022). So what happened in between? The DfE has announced in its white paper that “the academy system is now sufficiently mature to move to the next phase”. As this is one of the most notable overhauls of the school system in recent times, I thought it’d be good to look at the journey so far and what it tells us about the one ahead.

There were 203 academies open in England by 2010. It had been a relatively modest programme to improve certain underperforming secondary schools but not intended to be the solution for all. Then Michael Gove tried reinventing education and made academies a flagship policy of the coalition government’s plans for schools. The Academies Act 2010 was introduced to give all publicly funded schools, rather than just underperforming schools, the chance to become an academy.

Over the next six years, we saw about five thousand schools convert. Some did so through choice, and some were given academy orders to do so. Some people were fans of the policy, some were not. It’s difficult to try and distil the debate for and against academisation to a few hundred words without being reductionist, but when I try and talk about this at length my friends tell me I’m being boring and make rude gestures, so here is my interpretation of the debate in a paragraph.

Essentially, those for academies argue that it gives control to those actually working in schools, freeing them from bureaucracy and letting them make decisions about how their school should run, and this in turn helps to drive up standards. Factors such as unifying the current complex system, capacity building and conflicts of interest in local government have also been given as reasons for a fully-academised system. However, others argue that the available data on academies shows they perform less well than maintained schools, and therefore as a school improvement strategy it is flawed and unsubstantiated. Others have expressed concerns over the operations of multi-academy trusts.

Assuming there is no great u-turn, all schools will have to convert in 4-6 years. I think the debates we had previously (i.e. is academisation a contributor to school improvement?) were good to have when schools had a choice between being an academy and remaining as a maintained school. But that choice appears to have gone. The change is happening, so there are new questions that need to be considered.

We need to face the reality of it happening (much like we can debate whether we really need another Spiderman reboot but have to accept that it is happening).

The underwhelming truth about academies and academy chains is that some perform well and some perform badly. Rather than a report that suggests anything otherwise, I’d really like people to drill down into what works for those that are performing well and to share the love.

Every school is now going to have to learn the lessons of what makes a good chain, because they’re about to become an even more fundamental part of our educational infrastructure. Let’s not pretend that they all irrefutably drive up standards, because as of yet they haven’t. I think we need a concerted, combined effort to look at what has worked for them so that by 2022 we have the best chance that academisation works for everyone, especially the children.


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