The information war raging within the academies revolution

Reach Academy in Feltham. Research is beginning to look at the impact of academy reforms. Steve Parsons/PA Archive

All schools in England have a considerable and increasing degree of autonomy over their budgets. Academies have more autonomy than those state schools still under local authority control over how they use the national curriculum and appoint teachers. They are also free to vary pay and conditions and the length of the school day and year. As of July 2014, there were 3,980 academies open in England, with many applications to convert being processed.

Two new reports and a video released by the department for education look at how schools are responding to these reforms and what is happening in local areas as a result. They are a cogent example of the war of information going on within the academies revolution that was ushered in by the former secretary of state for education Michael Gove, and looks set to continue under his successor Nicky Morgan.

The first report, Do academies make use of their autonomy?, is internally written by the department for education, while the second: The evolving education system in England: a “temperature check”, was commissioned from the Isos partnership, a small, independent, public-sector advisory company. The video is entitled:The school revolution: how reforms are transforming schools. Its genre is blatant corporate promotion, but gives some insights into how the headteachers interviewed are using their extra freedoms.

Given the bitterness of the debates about academies, free schools and the reduction of the role of local government in managing schools, it matters to have trustworthy answers to questions about the effects of these reforms. Is it that schools, unleashed from stifling bureaucracy, are much more innovative and responsive in the interests of all children? Or have the high-speed reforms contributed to schools being ineffectively monitored and led to a dysfunctional fragmentation of local systems which makes strategic decision-making impossible and further disadvantages the most deprived?

Who is asking the questions

The Isos report looks at the evolution of ten local education systems, examining a range of different contexts and including all types of school. It presents what is happening using concise summaries and case studies and discusses, albeit in a muted way, negative as well as positive findings. It also draws out many wise lessons for schools and local authorities to navigate the changes being experienced. It is a model of its kind.

In contrast, the department for education’s report lacks many of the acknowledged attributes of rigorous research. The survey questions were leading and no pilot of them is reported to have been done. The research was conducted by and reported to the department to which the participants were contracted. The questions were about how well they were fulfilling that contract, but there is no indication that participants were allowed to remain anonymous.

The researchers attempted without success to establish a control group, meaning the research reports only on the activity of academies and it is not possible to know how far their results differ from what is happening in other kinds of school.

Limited use of autonomies

Nevertheless, some facts can be gleaned from the department’s report. Of the 720 academies surveyed, 14% said they are making changes to the school day, and even fewer (9%) to the pattern of terms, such as the length of school holidays. Some 16% have hired unqualified teachers, but the schools say that the great majority of these are working towards qualified teacher status.

Nearly a quarter of schools said they had changed the staff pay structure with another 12% saying they planned to do so – but the report gives no details as to what or how significant the changes were. With academies not mandated to teach the national curriculum, 22% of schools claimed to have introduced new subjects and three quarters claimed to have changed or planned to change the curriculum in some way.

Changing ways of collaboration

The freedom to collaborate with other schools is not confined to academies. Both reports show that it is becoming the norm for an individual school to belong to a formal or informal group of schools which gives them access to support.

This move towards new networks of schools mostly within, but sometimes across, local authority boundaries is a major theme of the independent Isos report and chimes with what we have found in our own research.

The Isos report found that schools in the ten local authorities are, with admirable creativity, establishing new and diverse ways of working together. New forums with decision-making powers are emerging that enable strategic decisions to be reached on issues such as planning provision of school places and school improvement.

More significantly, there are symptoms of schools taking collective responsibility for all the children in their area. Fair Access Protocols designed to share admissions of children posing greater challenges are being honoured by most schools in the ten areas studied.

The report provides evidence that in the best spirit of professionalism, those on the ground are finding ways of making things work. Whether the result is better or worse than what went before, or could have been achieved in a different way, is a question they studiously avoid.

Warning signs

But while there is much that is positive in the Isos report there are some warnings they give and some they fail to give. They note, for example, that adaptation has been “smoother” in some areas than others, and that new local arrangements for vulnerable children and those with special educational needs are not well developed.

An explicit aim of the policies of successive administrations has been to disrupt and redistribute power within local education systems. That process has been given an extra push by the Coalition government. In any shake-up, existing tensions and inequalities influence new distributions of power. There is no guarantee that the settlements that emerge will be entirely benign to all.

The long-term inequalities of funding and prestige between primary and secondary schools may be exacerbated if, as we found in research shortly to be published, secondary headteachers are more likely to gain powerful positions in new decision-making forums.

Another possible issue is the problem of rule by an advantaged elite group of heads often from already multiply advantaged and highly performing schools over a disenfranchised rump of schools serving multiply disadvantaged pupils. Will professionalism be enough to counteract the temptation of the “ruling” elite to protect their own interests?

Accompanying the professional impetus to collaborate is the pressure of schools in a local area competing for the highest attaining and least disadvantaged students. Collective responsibility may not stretch as far as ensuring balanced school intakes.

Revolutions often start with euphoria and a sense of a new spring but almost always pass through an internecine stage before a new stability is reached. The jury is out on whether this school revolution will be any different.