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CMRE Forum breakfast, 31st August 2016

‘Autonomy? Accountability? Leadership?: What’s stopping Academies?’

In recent years, discussion long-term viability of Academy policy has made little progress. In 2014, calls from the Education Select Committee for the government to learn the lessons of academisation as to what had been achieved and what had made a difference, appeared to fall on deaf ears, as did a memorable challenge from the NfER (2015) for the government to become more articulate about its theory of change, its strategic goals in relation to improving teaching and learning, and to be clearer about the mechanisms proposed for effecting change. The policy conversation appears in the meantime to have got stuck on the rightness or wrongness of the programme as a whole and to have gone round and round in circles on the basis of fairly wooden, and methodologically poor, comparisons of academies and maintained schools.

While the theoretical and international evidence base for autonomy reforms is persuasive, and evidence of the impact of pre-2010 Sponsored Academies is clear, until recently it’s been too early to make much headway with establishing the effects of Converter academies post-2010. Recent research from the LSE fills out this picture, giving us a much clearer idea of differential impacts and the degree of heterogeneity also.

At a recent breakfast meeting of CMRE’s Forum, Olmo Silva (LSE) presented his team’s research findings, as a starting place for discussion of where research needs to go next and consideration of what can be done to optimise the system for improving attainment and equity. Though of a different magnitude to the effects displayed in the previous LSE research referred to on the pre-2010 Sponsored Academies, he explained, post-2010 Outstanding Converters whose performance had previously flat-lined, show steady improvement in terms of KS4 performance over the four years following conversion. There appears to be something of a self-reinforcing dynamic of success here, which academy freedoms may enable. But the same trajectory is not evident for good and Satisfactory/inadequate Converters. And the average effects mask a great deal of heterogeneity. So, Academy performance appears variable, but we still don’t really know why, he said. What researchers need to do now is to identify what lies behind these disparities. Factors might include issues of system and policy design, different institutional responses to autonomy, issues of governance and leadership, teacher turnover, motivation and effectiveness.

Following Olmo, James Croft, CMRE’s Executive Director and Convenor of the Forum, raised a number of issues that may have had bearing on the success of the autonomy reforms. That accountability had been designed almost entirely with the needs of central government must surely be relevant. Little attention has been paid to parents, whom surveys suggest feel marginalised. This might very easily have had an adverse effect on parental engagement with their children’s education. It also undermines the point of recent reforms to ensure that funding as far as possible follows pupils - a process triggered by parent choice.

Speaking of Ofsted’s role here, James said that keeping its parent-facing mandate clear was now more important than ever. The regulator nevertheless had much work to do to develop an alternative, or supplement, to test-based performance metrics for validating its judgements. Clearly value-added measures of pupil progress should be central, but inspectors ought ultimately to be able to justify their individual judgements as to the quality of education in relation to the evidence base regarding what is known to be impactful for learning. The inspectorate should narrow its criteria and seek to focus on where it can add value for schools.

James continued that resolving its position in relation to the new remit afforded School Commissioners was of critical importance for Ofsted also. The present lack of consistency between the judgements of these two organisations affects the confidence and quality of leadership in schools – and undoubtedly could have ramifications therefore for the success of autonomy reforms.

The logic of autonomy requires, on the contrary, that we invest in leadership, he said, as lack of leadership capacity is a key potential constraint in any governance reform. Unfortunately, a recent CMRE overview of the literature had found that we lack understanding of what are effective leadership practices. Identifying potential leaders is difficult; attributes-based approaches tend to exclude unnecessarily and to conflate with aspects of personality. The system should therefore be geared as far as possible to adding competency and providing opportunities for leadership to emerge in context.

He concluded that we also need to acknowledge what we have learned about leadership in the context of the Academy Sponsor programme. Leadership skill has turned out to be much more contextual, embedded and difficult to transfer than was supposed. This has important implications for the feasibility of the present Government’s plans for Grammar school led MATs, and for placing requirements in this regard on HEIs and independent charitable trust schools.

Amy Finch, Head of Education at Reform think tank offered a sustained critique of the brokering model of effecting school transfers. Based on a recent survey of MAT CEOs (published last month as Academy Chains Unlocked), she said that the tight control of school transfers exercised by the Secretary of State via the School Commissioners’ Office, and the lack of transparency and clear process that characterises the model, is of real concern across the system. An open bidding process, she argued, as has CMRE also, is much to be preferred – primarily because, as the Reform report argues in greater detail, this would allow for better matching of schools to Sponsors, but also because it would also provide a stronger (because more defined) accountability framework.

Further, she stressed that the incentives on MATs to encourage them to take on schools in difficult circumstances are nowhere near adequate. CMRE has argued that the best way to address this is to ensure that per pupil funding is not subject to regional variation, and that pupil premium funding is set at a level sufficient both to attract the right new operators, and to pay for improvements needed in these schools. On the tendering model proposed by Reform, an element of price competition could be included, in the event that specific contextual challenges warranted revenue funding over and above the present per pupil / pupil premium allocation. In the meantime, Amy put the case that the government should commit to additional financial support for operators willing to take on under-resourced or financially unviable schools, and the various funding pots presently in existence to aid capacity growth should be amalgamated to this end.

To support MAT development, Reform thinks that funding should go direct to chains, rather than to individual schools. A condition of any expansion is always ensuring the right level of investment in infrastructure. Proposals to allow heads of individual schools within a MAT to secede, as put by Policy Exchange, would undermine this and would not provide an effective means of holding MATs to account for performance.

It was underscored by James that this was consistent with research he had undertaken on new relations between schools in the reforming schools landscape. The nature and terms of partnership appear important. There is evidence to suggest that schools within those types of federation most expressly purposed to improving pupil attainment within a rationalised, coherent, and outcomes-focussed governance and organisational structure have been more impactful than those under looser, less formal collaborative arrangements, and also compared with stand-alone schools.

The final contributor, education policy commentator, John David Blake, posited the centrality of the quality of the curriculum to the success of autonomy reform. Real progress has been made, he said, in respect of establishing what constitutes a solid, knowledge-based curriculum – and thus the basis on which schools would compete in the future. He warned that expansion of selective education on a large scale represents a potential threat to this however, as without attention to current accountability and teacher terms, it could have consequences for retention of able teachers in non-selective mainstream schools. John recognised Ofsted’s recent proactive moves to identify innovation in curriculum, delivery and assessment to be positive. He questioned, however, whether there is presently the research apparatus to support this effort. The Education Endowment Foundation’s ‘Research Schools’ initiative is a welcome development in this regard, but more could be done to support research within MATs, at the MAT level.

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