The government’s determination to expand selection must be done within the current system – and that includes academies, says Amy Finch.

But academy chains vary in their effectiveness; Reform’s new research attempts to find out why Selection in 2016 looks very different from grammars and secondary moderns, Theresa May insinuated last week at prime minister’s questions. But her green paper isn’t going to convince sceptics, as the chapter on selective schools talks almost exclusively about grammars.

But in one sense May is right. If the government expands selection – by ability, specialism or faith (Reform thinks it shouldn’t) – then it will need to do it within the current system. That system is one where 40 per cent of state-educated children attend academies, more than half of them in academy chains. Even 140 of the 163 grammar schools are academies, and 21 of these are in a chain of two or more schools.

The government’s policy on academy schools and chains remains vital to its reform agenda. Some may have noticed that one of the proposed “conditions” of setting up a new selective school would be to partner with an academy chain or sponsor a new academy. The government also wants to encourage multi-academy trusts to select within their trust.

But the government should not go stale on academies: the policy needs reform. The evidence on academies and chains suggests there is wide variation in their impact on pupil attainment, just as for maintained schools, but research has failed to establish why. There is a big black hole in terms of rigorous evidence.

There is a big black hole in terms of rigorous evidence

Yesterday Reform made a step towards filling this gap in the first survey of academy chains. If we are to understand why chains vary in their effectiveness, as the Department for Education itself has found, then we need to know more about what chains do.

The results are detailed. One of the key takeaways is that nearly all the chains surveyed want to grow in both the short and long term. Chains are more interested in taking over low-performing schools than high-performing ones, but they don’t want schools in financial difficulties or in remote locations.

If the desire for chains to grow is realised, then this creates a huge role for the “managers” of the system: the schools commissioners. Reform has recommended that this role be taken away from the government to avoid the potential for conflict of interest. But that is not all. We also think the commissioners should be enabled to take a step back in the initial matching of schools to sponsors, and to make the rebrokerage process more transparent and open.

When a school is deemed “failing”, either in or outside a chain, commissioners currently go to their list of approved academy sponsors to find a chain to take it over. As our report reveals, this “rebrokerage” can occur even before a formal notice from Ofsted, the Education Funding Agency or a schools commissioner has been issued. This has caused problems in the past, with large chains already known to be struggling asked to take on schools far beyond their reach. Schools have then had to be taken away and commissioned again.

Establishing an online sponsor forum for both failing schools and any school wishing to find a sponsor could prevent this happening again. Rather than waiting for the school commissioner’s phone call, chains would need to submit short, online bids setting out why they want to take on the school and how they could improve it. The idea is that through this process, the initial matching to sponsor and school would be improved. More chains could put themselves forward. And, a bit like a job application, those who put themselves forward would (mostly!) be serious about the role.

The report also recommends greater opportunity for chain-led commissioning which, again, would reduce the burden on commissioners, allowing them to focus on under-performing schools. Currently, if a chain is struggling to turn around a school and finds another chain that would be prepared to take it on, they can approach the regional schools commissioner to ask for a “swap”.

However, this does not happen and chain bosses believe it would bring negative attention even if the swap was in the best interest of pupils. Actively encouraging these commissioning activities could lead to a better, more sustainable academy system.

 

Amy Finch is head of education at Reform think tank