The debate on academies. Are they a force for good?

Picture: Rui Vieira/PA Wire
Picture: Rui Vieira/PA Wire
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THE ORIGINS of the academy programme in Yorkshire did not start with the flagship policy of former Education Secretary Michael Gove or even of Tony Blair but with the creation of city technology colleges back in the early 1990s under Margaret Thatcher.

Dixons City Technology College (CTC) in Bradford was one of the first of these new type of state schools - involving successful people in private sector to drive up standards - to open in the country.

The new inner city school with links to the electrical giant Dixons opened amid widespread opposition from the trade unions and Labour politicians.

However, a decade later under the New Labour Government, the same CTCs became the inspiration behind its own city academy programme. And Dixons City Academy was one of the first two to open in Yorkshire in 2005 having already established itself as one of Bradford’s most successful state schools as a CTC.

Academies under Labour were new state-funded but autonomous schools set up in new builds in deprived areas where existing secondaries had failed to raise standards.

Sponsors were a mix of charities, faith groups, businesses and philanthropists. They were given greater freedoms over their timetable, curriculum and employment arrangements.

Trinity in Thorne, near Doncaster, was Yorkshire’s first purpose built academy. It was sponsored by the Emmanuel Schools Foundation, a Christian charity set up by car magnate Sir Peter Vardy.

The early controversy over academies such as Trinity surrounded who the sponsor was and how they might impact on the curriculum - a debate that has been mirrored in the early stages of free schools.

However over time it became the scale of the academies project rather than the individual schools which has been one of the biggest areas of controversy.

In 2005/2006 four more city academies were opened in Barnsley, Leeds and Sheffield and by the end of 2009 there were 19 across Yorkshire.

When the coalition Government took office the number was massively expanded and the policy transformed.

Whereas under the original Labour plan academies had been about new schools shaking up the status quo, Mr Gove’s reforms were about making academy status and freedoms “the norm.”

In the 2013/ 2014 GCSE exam results there were more than 140 secondary academies in Yorkshire alone and 12 more have converted in the current academic year. And since it was opened up to primary schools more than 300 in Yorkshire have also joined the programme.

The Government achieved this expansion by opening up academy status to more existing schools encouraging those rated as good and outstanding to convert. Becoming an academy is also seen by the DfE as a solution for struggling schools which are taken over by a new sponsor.

The debate on academies has centred on two issues: Standards and accountability.

A recent Education Select Committee report said it was as yet impossible to say whether academies were a force for good.

In Yorkshire the split of secondary schools between academies and non academies is now close to 50/50.

A Yorkshire Post analysis of this year’s league tables show the proportion of academies below GCSE floor targets is almost exactly the same as other secondary schools. In total 19.4 per cent of all academies were below the floor target compared with 18.7 per cent of other schools. Figures show that if free schools and studio schools are not included in the academies results the proportion of academies below the floor falls slightly to 18.5 per cent making them marginally better than other secondaries.

Although academies have been at the heart of the last two Government’s education reforms they remain a divisive issue for the sector.

Henry Stewart of the campaign group the Local Schools Network said the Yorkshire Post results pointed to the lack of evidence that academies raise standards.

He said he was not “anti-academy” but said there was no research base to suggest schools switching to academy status led to an improvement in results.

He said: “In primary school evidence actually suggests that the focus on academy conversion is a distraction and leads to falling standards.

“It is being driven ideologically driven by people who believe that introducing competition between schools will make things better and yet all the evidence is that schools perform best when there is collaboration between schools for the good of everyone.”

Jonathan Simons, is the head of education at the centre-right think-tank the Policy Exchange which has called for all schools to be converted into academies.

He said: “I am not saying that all academies will automatically raise standards - I don’t think anyone has ever argued that. What makes a difference in schools is great teaching and great leadership, nobody disputes this and I think the academies model is the best structural enabler to allow effective teaching and leadership to happen.” Mr Simons also argued that with academies now representing “60 per cent of secondaries and getting on for 20 per cent of primary schools” the current system was too complex and confusing. He said it made sense to move all schools to one model of accountability. He told the Yorkshire Post that if all schools became academies greater resources would be needed by regional school commissioners who have been appointed to hold academies to account.Although he warned against giving this office extra responsibilities and warned that doing so could make regional school commissioners “the new Ofsted.”

Accountability has been the area in which the DfE has faced the most criticism when it comes to academies.

The creation of regional schools commissioners was seen as an admission that the department could not monitor thousands of autonomous schools from Whitehall. These commissioners backed by head teacher boards are responsible for standards and decision making over academies in their area. Yorkshire has been split into three areas with separate commissioners: the North comprising North Yorkshire, Cumbria and the North East; Lancashire and West Yorkshire and East Midlands and the Humber.

The Public Accounts Committee and the National Audit Office have criticised the DfE over the issue of academy spending. A PAC report said the DfE’s Education Funding Agency had not achieved oversight of how public money was being spent by academies. And earlier this year the auditor general gave an adverse opinion on the DfE’s accounts because of this issue.

Amyas Morse said the DfE faced financial management challenges in accounting for the spending of academies comprising 2,585 academy trusts operating 3,905 individual academies.

In the countdown to the General election Labour have pledged to give all schools academy freedoms while Prime Minister David Cameron has said coasting schools will be converted to academy status.

The political consensus, within Westminster at least, appears to be that academy freedoms are a good thing.

The challenge for the politicians in the next Government will be how to provide schools with this autonomy while ensuring tax payers, parents and pupils have accountability.

And will there still be a consensus in five years time if it remains unclear whether academies are a “force for good?”