The Reform think tank have published the Academy Chains Unlocked report which presents results from the first survey of academy chain chief executives.
The popularity of academies with policymakers means that two fifths of state-educated children in England now attend an academy. While there are different forms of academies, all have greater responsibility over the curriculum, staffing and finances than other state-funded schools. The evidence, however, that academies have improved school education is not clear cut. Taken in its entirety, the evidence suggests that the recent academies are not having the transformative impact on education that was expected by government.
The results of the report
The respondents were chief executives from 66 academy chains responsible for a total of around 700 academies. The results show a varied picture of chain operations, with some highly centralised and others devolving more responsibility to schools. It also shows that most chains want to expand, regardless of their current size. However, their key priority is to reduce disparities in pupil attainment across their chain, suggesting that chains want a role in spreading excellence.
Drawing on these results, along with unstructured interviews with chain chief executives, the report identifies four problems with current policy. First, academy chains are not routinely granted enough financial autonomy over their academies. Second, the process of matching schools to chains is not transparent or independent, and is therefore open to conflict. Third, this opacity is hindering competition between chains. Fourth, chains are not effectively incentivised to run schools that are in need of support.
Reform recommends a range of changes: a new approach to the funding, commissioning, oversight and accountability arrangements for academy schools to help them reach their potential. It recommends that funding for academies be allocated to the chain for them to dispense as they see fit, alongside more robust accountability measures. Commissioning decisions should be taken by an independent body, based on transparent criteria, and with all chains able to put themselves forward to run schools. There should be more stringent, and more generous, grants for chains that decide to run schools that have previously failed, find themselves in financial difficulties, or are otherwise undesirable to run.
The report makes a number of other key recommendations, including a call for the DfE to “amend the Governors’ Handbook to allow maintained schools and academies to pay local governors” echoing Sir Michael Wilshaw’s speech of November 2015.
Governance in academy chains
The report also identifies that the governor skills academy chains most value are financial, accounting or legal experience at the trustee and executive board levels. It identified that at the local governing body level knowledge of the education sector was important, and this was the only level where being a parent was viewed as a significant requirement. The report identified that Government should abandon its proposal to introduce parental petitions in favour of requiring all chains to have a clear method for engaging with their pupils’ parents. Coincidentally in a speech last week Justine Greening announced that she does not intend to follow through on her predecessor’s proposal to remove the required places for elected parents on academy trust boards. This is a positive move that supports the maintenance of a balance of skills and experience on governing boards.
Other recommendations include that Ofsted should review its framework on inspecting governance in academies. It should focus inspection on identifying strong internal accountability at every level within a trust. While it should be made explicit that parent governors are not required, Ofsted should continue to expect a clear mechanism for engaging parents in every individual academy.
The findings and recommendations of the report should be of interest to academy governors and the governors in maintained schools considering future academy conversion.
One Education provides a variety of governor training, advice and guidance. We support schools to develop their thinking on how to engage with academisation and provide advice and support through the process if the school sees this as in their best interests.