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Screen shot 2013-08-01 at 19.35.41Chris Skidmore is Member of Parliament for Kingswood and a member of the Education Select Committee. Follow Chris on Twitter.

With
exam season over, GCSE and A-Level students in their thousands will be
waiting nervously for the results of what will have been years of hard
work. It is also three years since the Academies
Act, which promised to deliver a revolution in education, was passed in
to law. It seems particularly fitting at this time to give Michael Gove
and the Department for Education some assessment – their own mid-term
exams, if you
like.

What did the Academies Act do?

One
of the core principles of the education reforms initiated under Tony
Blair has been that schools can thrive when they are given autonomy from
their Local Authority and allowed to run the school as they
see best for their pupils. The Academies programme, started under
Labour, had been replacing a limited number of poorly-performing schools
in deprived area with autonomous academies, transforming education for
thousands.


Yet while
academies attracted a lot of publicity, the scope of the project was
very limited. In 2010, after eight years of the programme, there were
just 203 academies open, with a longer
term target of 400. Michael Gove made clear that he wanted to see this
accelerate substantially; so in 2010 he gave all schools the chance to
seek academy status and independence from their local authority. For the
first time, this would be open to primary
and special schools too. 

The
Academies Act also introduced free schools in to the system. Inspired
by those in Sweden, these are new schools set up in response to local
demand. They can be set up by a wide range
of providers, from teachers groups to parents to local businesses on a
non-profit basis; all they need is a strong case for the school which
they can put to the DfE. Free
schools enjoy all of the autonomy given to academies, with schools able
to set their own curricula, school holidays, and pay and conditions for
staff.   

Has it worked?

Screen shot 2013-08-01 at 19.38.14
Thousands
of schools have now seized this opportunity to convert, and though
there has been a slight dip in the number created last year the number
still remains very high. In just three
years the number of academies has increased more than ten-fold, with
three quarters of the 2721 new academies being the newly-created
convertor academies, created from existing local authority-maintained
schools. Alongside these are 81 new free schools, the second central innovation, with a further 102 due to open and 109 in the pipeline.

In
its own terms, this huge expansion of schools free from local authority
control has been a huge success. Convertor academies in particular have
opened up autonomy to a huge number of schools
to which it had previously been inaccessible.

The
most controversial part of these reforms, the free schools, have so far
defied the expectations of Labour opponents such as shadow education
minister Tristram Hunt who derided them as, amongst other things, the
‘vanity projects’ of ‘west-London
yummy mummies’. A diverse range of schools have opened under the
policy, some from parent groups, others from religious groups and even,
in the case of Century 21 school in Newham, one led by an ex-policy
maker for Tony Blair.

These new schools have proved
wildly popular with parents, and over 90 per cent of them have found
themselves over subscribed upon launching.

What are Academies and Free Schools doing with their freedom?

Three
years in ,we’re seeing more and more evidence of the innovation that
freedom from local authorities is allowing. Take, for instance, the David Young
Community Academy in Leeds. Rejecting
the local authority-set three term school calendar, they have adopted a
seven term year with a four week (rather than the more typical six week) summer holiday. This reduces the learning loss that can happen over summer while allowing for more regular breaks throughout
the rest of the year.

More radically still, the first term begins in
June, so Year Sevens come into the new school with all the momentum they had
built up in their last year of primary education, rather than letting
it slip away as it so damagingly tends to.

Academies
and Free Schools have also been making use of their freedom to set
their own pay and conditions for staff. The Greenwich Free School offers
a good example of using flexible pay
scales and employment contracts to get more out of staff, and reward
those who are doing the best work. Rigid
local authority
pay scales tend to be much more a reflection of tenure than
performance, and can see bright young teachers disillusioned by the huge
gaps in pay between them and their less effective elders.

The
Academies programme has also seen schools, free from the local
authority, work together to improve. Chains of academies have emerged,
with schools working together, sometimes under common
trusts but also with looser, less formal, collaborative relationships.
A Policy Exchange report released last year looked at how academy
chains were pooling resources in order to save money and improve
services like teacher training and development, which
are harder to organise as a single institution.

Additionally, chains
help best practice spread by creating dialogue between schools about
what’s working in the classroom. By
pairing up weaker schools with stronger ones chains also strengthen one
of the founding objectives of the academies programme: helping failing
schools catch up.

Although,
unavoidably, there is only early evidence to go on, Ofsted’s Chief
Inspector Michael Wilshaw has been very clear that, based on
inspections, chains do appear to be more effective
than single institutions. DfE have
been working hands-on to encourage these chains and expand
collaboration between schools,
with Schools Minister Lord Nash saying recently that he wants to see schools
doing more to ‘to engage with their feeder primaries and create local
clusters to improve performance’, and revealing that the Department has
been actively recruiting sponsors to do this.

How good are the schools?

Innovation
is one thing, but it means nothing if it isn’t linked to outcomes.
While, just three years into the rapid expansion of the programme, data
remains quite thin on the ground, we are
finally starting to build a fuller picture of the effectiveness of
academies.

The
key measure of success is how fast academies are improving relative to
the state sector as a whole, and GCSE data released in January shows
academies outperforming other schools. Across
the state sector as a whole the proportion of pupils who achieved at
least five good GCSEs, including Maths and English, rose by 0.6 percentage
points, while in sponsored academies the increase was 3.1 percentage
points – more than five times faster. 

There
is also more inspection data now available. The 2012 Ofsted report
found that out of the 204 inspected, 25 per cent of sponsored, chained
academies were outstanding, compared to 21
per cent for the sector as a whole.

What next?

The
sheer volume of new academies has certainly been remarkable, but there
remains a problem of spread. In the
midst of this huge expansion of autonomous schools there are still
places where parents don’t have a choice other than their local
authority-maintained school.

Screen shot 2013-08-01 at 19.39.28This
heat map from the DfE’s latest annual review of the Academies programme
shows the wide variation in the proportion of secondary academies
across the country. There are 27 local authorities
where less than a quarter of secondary schools are academies – that’s
less than half the national average. The problem is most acute in Bury
and Barking & Dagenham, where there isn’t a single academy. Worst of
all, Bury doesn’t have any free schools either,
giving the local authority a complete monopoly over education.

Roll
out has also been far slower amongst primary schools, with more than
two thirds of local authorities having fewer than 10 per cent of primary
schools with academy status. It’s
worth remembering why this is a problem: while there are many local
authorities which do a perfectly good job of running the schools they
are in charge of, there are also areas where
the authority is persistently failing pupils. Take Portsmouth and
Coventry for instance, where just 53 and 42 per cent of primary pupils
respectively attend a school rated good or outstanding. This compared to
places like Lambeth where more than
80 per cent of pupils do. 

In
these areas where the local authority isn’t up to scratch, offering
parents a choice is absolutely crucial. At the moment less than five per
cent of their primaries are academies. The competition
this choice creates doesn’t just help those going to the academies; it
also helps to drive up standards across the board as maintained schools
lose their monopoly position. 

Of
course this needs to be seen in perspective. Before the 2010 Act you
could count on two hands the number of local authorities where more than
one in four secondary schools were academies. Yet
this isn’t a problem we should be ignoring. With so much achieved in
many parts of the country we can now afford to be more focused on
delivering academies in the areas where the expansion
hasn’t fully reached, particularly in areas with a failing local
authority.

The
drive for this has to come straight from the Department. Just as Ofsted
have found many local authorities with poorly performing schools
haven’t been using warning notices or appointing
Interim Executive Boards, we also can’t rely on them to do the hands on
work required to encourage applications. Government
should state clearly an ambition to see autonomous schools in every
part of the country, showing the same level of commitment they have to
developing academy chains. This then
needs to be backed up by concentrating resources to seek out sponsors
and schools which are considering converting, then guiding them through
the application process.

We should also start to consider whether local
authorities that persistently fail to provide an acceptable standard of
education for pupils should be removed from controlling pupils'
education altogether, to be replaced by learning trusts (as took place in
Hackney) or other education charitable providers committed to raising
standards while keeping ideology and politics out of the classroom.

Three
years since its passing into law, the Academies Act has already left a
deep and lasting impression on education in this country. However,
it’s clear the job isn’t done yet. While pupils in large parts of the
country are now benefitting from the competition and innovation that
academies and free schools bring it is by no means universal. Over the
next two years we need to see a more focused Academies
programme which tackles the those parts of the country that haven’t yet
been reached, ensuring that this is an education revolution for all,
not just for some.      

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