Failing academy chains highlight hole at heart of education policy

Snipping away at state control. Steve Parsons/PA

What should we make of the announcement that the academy chain E-ACT is being stripped of ten of its 34 schools because of under-performance? It is unwise to jump to conclusions when details are still emerging about the reasons behind the chain’s downsizing and why these ten schools were chosen. But the story reinforces some general concerns about the government’s academy and free school policy.

Academies were introduced by the previous Labour government to tackle what was seen as the entrenched failure of some secondary schools in very challenging contexts. They were directly contracted by and accountable to the then department for children schools and families.

When Labour left office in 2010 there were only 200 or so academies (1% of all schools). The new Conservative-led coalition continued to pressure failing schools to become academies, but also encouraged high-performing secondary and primary schools to do so.

By September 2013, 9% of primary and 52% of secondary schools had converted to academy status (a total of 3,304, making 15% of all schools) and 99 new “free schools” had been created. The main focus of the current policy is not to rescue a few failing schools but to effect a major reduction of the power of local authorities over schools. This is radically changing the landscape of schooling in local areas.

The missing middle

The current department for education (DfE) cannot effectively monitor thousands of schools from the centre. An increasing number of cases are emerging of financial impropriety, incompetent governance, and educational failure in academies and free schools. These are symptoms of what has become known as the problem of the “middle tier” with the removal of academies and free schools from the closer governance of a local authority.

Then there are the related problems of local strategic management and a democratic deficit. When schools are independent, local officials cannot implement long term plans for schooling in their area and elected officials cannot be held accountable to their electorate for the quality of local schools. Accountability is now shifted to their customers, the parents.

Taking away powers and responsibilities from the local authority without ensuring that they are effectively discharged in some other way risks fragmentation, inefficiency, ineffectiveness and impropriety. This is why the DfE has proposed regional boards and school commissioners with responsibility over academy applications. The Labour party is awaiting a report from David Blunkett about what they should propose for a middle tier of governance.

Meanwhile, things are happening on the ground. We have been conducting research over the last two years in three local authorities (a county, a city and a town) into the impact of these policies, with research due to be published soon.

So far, we’ve found that the proportions of academies (there were no free schools) in each authority varied greatly, and that most were not part of either a local grouping, or a national academy chain.

Instead, we’re finding regional and local groups of schools emerging – some academies, some not – many of which have geographical reach beyond the area. This has tended to weaken their attachment to the “family” of neighbouring schools. The groups varied widely in terms of who initiated collaboration, their kind of leadership, and their size and composition, but they are not part of national academy chains. As a result, some of these groups and the individuals who led them are becoming powerful players within the area or in the wider region.

How will things evolve?

There is room for increased competition between different providers with different kinds of loyalties and drivers. But, we also found, in the willingness to collaborate, a residual commitment to local democratic principles and practices. The competitive principle of the market is at odds with this wish to cooperate. How this tension is resolved will depend on how newly powerful local actors behave and is likely to vary area by area. The context in London, for example, is very different to that of a shire county.

The authorities are also in the process of developing a new role. They could simply relay the central government’s agenda. Or, they may identify and champion the wishes of the local population about local schooling. Given the kind of pressure central government can exert it is unlikely that LAs will take a radically critical stance towards the policy.

The patterns emerging in our three local authorities do not – at least in the short term – give much hope that they can provide the basis for a robust middle tier of governance. The authority alone has responsibility for the interests of all children in its area but it does not have the power to manage provision to effect what it thinks best.

In addition, the DfE emerges as a key player with the capacity not only to engage actively in local negotiations where schools are deemed to be failing, but also to be able to change the rules of the game. It can set the performance thresholds that define failure and trigger intervention and influence the remit of Ofsted. For example, at the moment academy chains are not inspected by Ofsted although their individual schools are.

Officers were very clear about the limitations on their ability to mould the local system. But if responsibilities are significantly reduced, the emerging groups have neither statutory responsibility for all the children in the area, nor the overall management of provision. As a result, the power of local authorities to prevent fragmentation of the local school system is limited and the potential for an effective middle tier to emerge remains problematic. We conclude that a robust local authority remains the best hope for addressing local provision, avoiding impropriety and redressing a democratic deficit.

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