Independent Public Schools are No Panacea for School Improvement

A review of academy schools, the English version of independent public schools, says that they are not a “panacea” for better schools. The report published earlier this month by the Academies Commission says “greater independence and freedom are not sufficient in themselves to secure improvement” [p. 41].

The report also found that many academies were manipulating admissions to select and exclude particular students so as to bolster their market position. It said this is increasing social segregation which is “a problem for equality of opportunity and to system improvement” [p.7].

The report calls for more collaboration between schools, supported by government funding. It says that school-to-school collaboration is one of the key routes to school improvement, but it is being undermined by academies operating in isolation from other schools and the system.

The new report shows that there has been a radical change in the English education system in the last few years with the conversion of many traditional state schools to academy schools. Academies are independent, state-funded schools, which have much more freedom than traditional public schools. They are free to manage their own budget, appoint staff and determine pay and conditions, set their own admissions criteria, set their own curriculum and determine their own governance structures. They were originally introduced by the Blair Labour government as a way to improve struggling schools in deprived areas.

The program has been altered and accelerated by the Conservative/Liberal Democrats coalition government. All primary and secondary schools are now invited to convert to academy status, but priority is given to those deemed to be “outstanding” or “performing well”. Over half of all secondary schools in England and a growing number of primary and special schools have become academies, or are in the process of converting.

In removing academies from the control of local government authorities, the expectation was that these schools will use their greater freedom and independence to lead and manage more effectively and more innovatively so that student outcomes improve. However, the new report says that the program has not delivered on this expectation:

…the evidence considered by the Commission does not suggest that improvement across all academies has been strong enough to transform the life chances of children from the poorest families. There have been some stunning successes among individual sponsored academies and academy chains, and these have raised expectations of what can be achieved even in the most deprived areas. But it is increasingly clear that academy status alone is not a panacea for improvement. [p.4]

There are broadly two types of academies. One is the sponsored academies that follow the model introduced under the Blair Labour government where schools were sponsored by charities, businesses and universities in deprived areas of England. These were schools judged to be below standard, closed and then re-opened with private sponsors.

The Academies Commission report found that results in 2011 for students in sponsored academies were broadly the same as in a group of similar, statistically matched, schools. However, if vocational subjects deemed equivalent to the General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) are excluded, results in sponsored academies were slightly lower than in a group of similar schools. The report said that it accepted the evidence of some improvements in sponsored academies, but that their impact was variable and that, in terms of qualifications, there was considerable reliance on GCSE equivalence [p.25]. It concluded in relation to these earlier academies that “the move to academy status itself was not an automatic route to school improvement”.

The report noted that the UK National Audit Office has highlighted the judgement of the Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted) that almost half of all sponsored academies require improvement. It also noted that international evidence of the impact of similar programs of greater school autonomy is mixed.

The other group of academies consists of the converted academies which are already established schools that converted to independent status under the coalition government. This group has expanded dramatically under the new government. There were 1920 converter academies by the end of 2012. These schools were permitted to convert to academy status because they were judged by Ofsted to be outstanding or performing well. They already had above-average results but they have fewer students eligible for free school meals and fewer Black and minority ethnic students than the national average.

The report expressed particular concern about social segregation in English schools that may be exacerbated by the rapid increase in academies. It says that the UK school system is already one of the most socially segregated in the OECD with socially advantaged pupils being concentrated in the best schools with more teachers and disadvantaged children over-represented in poorer quality schools.

Competition appears to be fuelling more social segregation as academies use their autonomy to covertly select students to bolster their market position.

Increasing competition and high stakes accountability, coupled with research showing how over-subscribed schools can manipulate the admissions system, provoke concerns that elective admissions may become more prevalent. As the academies programme becomes more complex – and no longer focused in areas of disadvantage – mass academisation has a significant impact on this landscape. [p.65]

The Commission received substantial evidence that many academies engage in selective admissions – that is, selecting students deemed to have abilities and/or with dispositions beneficial to the school and excluding those deemed not to have them. It said that such practices “may entrench rather than mitigate social inequalities” [p.63]. It found evidence of significantly higher rates of exclusion within academies than in local authority maintained schools of students with special needs, students eligible for free meals and students from some Black and ethnic minority groups.

The Commission said that the current system represents a challenge to fostering a socially just high-achieving education system:

The academies programme was originally introduced to aid social mobility and equality of opportunity. But heightened accountability measures (such as rising floor targets), coupled with the explosion of academies acting as their own admissions authorities, could mean that the government’s intentions are undermined, manifested in greater educational and social segregation. Poor admissions practices have an impact not only on pupils who are unfairly excluded; they also have a negative impact on the intakes of other local schools, causing greater social segregation. This is detrimental to overall attainment and system-wide improvement. [p.83]

It said that competition and accountability measures must not deny equality of access to excellent provision, especially to students who need it most [p.84]. It recommended that each school should be required to publish socio-economic data on their applications and acceptances for enrolments. These data should be scrutinised and reported on by the Office of the Schools Adjudicator with a particular focus on identifying any growing risk of socio-economic segregation.

The Commission expressed its concern at the isolation of academies from other schools and the system and called for more collaboration between schools.

The Commission believes that a fully academised system is best seen as a community of schools, each independent but working best if connected to the rest of the system. These schools would work with one another to accelerate school improvement, in particular the quality of teaching and its impact on learning and the achievements of children and young people. Collaboration across this national community of schools should enable a balance to be struck between independence and interdependence, with the clear aim of serving children and young people well. [p.5]

It noted that the Academies Act was intended to generate not only competition between schools but also cooperation and collaboration. One of the conditions for moving to academy status is a commitment to supporting other schools to improve. However, many academies put their energies into competition rather than collaboration and see school-to-school support as a low priority.

The evidence before the Commission suggests relatively few have taken on the supportive roles expected. Some schools told the Commission that the pressure in terms of public accountability to achieve good results and good judgements from Ofsted prevented them from taking on the accountability and responsibilities associated with sponsorship.
A number of converter academies reported keen local competition from other schools and indicated that they did not want collaboration with and support for other schools to divert them from individual success. The headteacher of a highly successful school in an Outer London Borough told a Commissioner that he saw his main competition as coming from independent schools in the area and that this stopped him from spending time supporting other schools. [p.27]

The Commission recommended that converters need to be held to account for the commitments they made in their application for conversion to support struggling schools, and that in future this be written into their funding agreements. It also said that much more needs to be done to capture the power of collaboration for system improvement.

Autonomy and independence are fundamental elements of academisation but they should not mean isolation. Academies need to learn from each other if improvement is to be as strong as it needs to be. [p.32]

The report states that collaboration between schools, together with excellent teaching, “is the route to improve learning and raise achievement for all pupils, no matter what their background” [p.8]. It said that more academies should recognise the value of establishing a collaborative culture, both within and across schools, and that a more systematic approach is needed. It said there would be real benefits from the government linking greater collaboration between schools with the academy program.

The evidence considered by the Commission suggests a more intensive drive to develop professional connections, collaborative activity and learning – both within and across schools – will generate fundamental change across the school system. This is a model of autonomous schools working in partnership to improve teaching and learning for them all. It is a model that not only shares and improves practice across the system but also has the potential for creating new and innovative practice. This represents a cultural shift. It is already underway but needing more momentum through a much tighter link with the process of academisation. [p.6]

The report said that Ofsted should support a school-led collaborative approach to school improvement and that the Department of Education should trial a number of school-led excellence networks designed to develop capacity and ensure support for all schools that need it [p.10]. It also recommended that an independent Royal College of Teachers should be established and funded by government to encourage more school-to-school collaboration about effective classroom practice.

The Commission has made some thoughtful recommendations to increase collaboration and reduce the damage done by unrestrained competition between schools. However, it remains to be seen whether they can soften, let alone turn back, the effects of the market tide.

The central issue in the debate following publication of the report was the prospects for the Commission’s recommendations to achieve greater collaboration between schools in a system of autonomous schools competing with each other. Ron Glatter, emeritus professor of educational administration and management at the Open University, said that the report had uncovered major defects in the new framework, including school admissions, governance, accountability, financial oversight and system improvement. He said the defects raise profound questions about academy schools in terms of effectiveness, equity and sustainability.

The commission sets out sensible recommendations to try to deal with…..defects in the framework, but it is highly questionable whether most of them could be satisfactorily remedied without changing the whole vision. The report reveals a structure that is fundamentally flawed and that will significantly damage education and worsen inequities.

This issue was also highlighted in comments at the launch of the report by Andreas Schleicher, Deputy Director for Education and Special Advisor on Education Policy to the OECD’s Secretary-General. He agreed with the Commission that collaboration is vital for system improvement and pointed out that there is a much stronger correlation between collaborative culture and system success than that associated with autonomous school systems. He said that the lowest performing schools in the OECD have autonomy but no collaborative culture.

Schleicher said that the world would be watching the future of England’s academy program closely because it is the first case where state-funded independent schools are expected to collaborate. He was clearly sceptical about the extent of collaboration possible in a system of autonomous schools. He noted how many converted academies have not honoured their commitments to support local struggling schools. He said that ensuring collaboration is harder in competitive systems because the more autonomy schools have, the harder it is for governments to intervene in them.

Trevor Cobbold

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