19 October 2018
The staggering juxtaposition of two facts looms over the often bitterly-contested controversies which have been bubbling to the surface around England after a school fails an Ofsted inspection.
They are as follows. First, since the passing of the 2016 Education and Adoption Act, the government has been required to turn any school which fails an Ofsted inspection into an academy.
And second, there is no evidence that turning a school into an academy in such circumstances will be a better solution, for that institution, than the alternative: the school remaining under the auspices of its local authority.
This second point was made very clear by Jonathan Slater, the most senior civil servant at the Department for Education, in a refreshingly honest admission in front of the cross-party Public Accounts Committee in May.
Pressed on whether there was any evidence that “rescuing underperforming schools via forced academisation provides better value for money than a rescue package for them inside a local authority,” Slater responded: “It is pretty difficult to look at the counter-factual and what would have happened [without academisation].”
Slater cited statistics that “seven out of 10 sponsored academies – the ones that were struggling before – are now [Ofsted-rated] good or outstanding” before admitting, “Would it have been possible to do that a different way? It may well have been.”
Slater and, more recently, Damian Hinds, the Education Secretary, have relied on statistics showing that many schools which Ofsted had rated ‘inadequate’ and are then turned into sponsored academies have improved, with Hinds stating that two-thirds of such schools were now rated ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’.
But a study published in July, following an analysis for the Local Government Association using data from before the time academisation for so-called ‘inadequate’ schools was compulsory, showed that 76 per cent of previously ‘inadequate’ schools had improved to be rated ‘good’ or better without leaving their local authorities.
The reality is that there is very little good evidence in favour of the academy model compared with maintained schools; virtually no evidence at all in the primary sector, where forced academisation is most likely to be operating now; and none of which I am aware in relation to the specific policy of imposing academisation after an Ofsted failure.
It is not hard to see, then, why the policy of forcing a change of status on particular institutions, without robust evidence that it will be the right choice for that institution, has been described as “immoral”.
Recent discoveries I have made show that this is not just a theoretical argument. The requirement to impose academy status, come what may, can severely limit the room for manoeuvre of decision-makers seeking improvements in schools. This is particularly the case given that would-be “sponsors” for struggling schools can be hard to find, and that changing a school’s legal structures is both expensive and time-consuming.
Ofsted reports, conducted by inspectors in some cases years after an initial failing judgement, make this clear.
One, on a primary school in Reading, Berkshire, three years after it was graded ‘inadequate’, stated: “Leaders talk candidly about how the school has floundered in times of uncertainty…Recent efforts to find an appropriate partner, including two fruitless efforts to join a multi-academy trust, have all but run out of steam. As result, the school is unable to access suitable support that could make a difference.
Another report, on a school in Durham, which had been lined up for a takeover with the now-stricken Bright Tribe academy chain, found: “The proposed conversion with the preferred sponsor did not take place. Subsequent sponsors were not found. This has created additional uncertainty that has slowed down the pace of improvement and made staff recruitment more difficult.”
In May, seemingly on the defensive, Hinds pledged that forced academisation would only take place in cases where a school fails an Ofsted report. But is a single Ofsted visit of up to a day and a half, which cannot be challenged meaningfully once the decision is made, really a robust basis on which to base a process which, as the above suggests, may be fraught with difficulty yet which, once done, appears irreversible?
We know from cases such as Waltham Holy Cross primary school in Essex, still facing forced academisation despite the inspectorate having to make 63 corrections to a draft report on which this conversion rests, that there is, at the least, serious room for doubt on that point.
But, for the final staggering fact in relation to forced academisation, we need to return to the lack of evidence.
As mentioned, there is no evidence, based on the experience of the policy so far, that forcing a school into academy status will be better than the alternative.
And yet: the government has been pumping large amounts of money into this scheme. Primary schools forced into academy sponsorship receive £70,000-£110,000 to carry out that conversion. In the secondary sector, it is a figure of £80,000-£150,000. This only relates to the period before academisation; some sponsors also receive sums of £10,000-£80,000 after that.
The National Audit Office, totalling up these figures and those spent on schools choosing academy status for themselves, found that the government had forked out £81 million converting maintained schools to academies in 2016-17 alone. It put the total cost of one-off academy conversions since 2010-11 at £745 million.
The pre-academisation money reportedly covers legal advice and project management – so cash seeming to find its way out of education itself to support complicated legal changes – but also aspects which might be helpful to schools in education terms such as “curriculum development and the early appointment of key staff”.
And yet, despite all this DfE largesse, as mentioned there is no good evidence that schools forced into sponsored academy status have done better than those which were not.
Those sums, then, look like a serious waste of money, at a time, of course, of huge pressures on school budgets.
Forced academisation, which has cost a large amount of cash, rests on a non-existent evidence base and is triggered by snapshot Ofsted reports which would not seem robust enough to support the weight being placed on them, is an abomination. It needs to go.