Let’s not use the latest Sutton Trust report to argue about school structures – headteachers just want to get on with the job, says Julie McCulloch
Academisation is one of those subjects which produces polarised views. Its rapid expansion is a product of Gove-era ideology and is anathema to some of those on the left who see it as an assault on democratic systems of local accountability.
Into these turbulent waters arrives today’s ‘Chain Effects’ report by the Sutton Trust with its headline finding that two-thirds of academy chains perform below average for disadvantaged pupils.
Of course, the report itself is a sober assessment of the progress of multi-academy trusts over the past five years with a series of recommendations about how to maintain the impetus for school improvement.
But it is likely to be seized upon by opponents of academisation as more evidence in the case for the prosecution.
Let’s talk about what’s in the best interests of the pupils
Let’s start by trying to reframe the debate. Instead of talking about politics and school structures let’s talk about what is in the best interests of the pupils.
The uncomfortable reality is that there are a number of schools which are locked in a cycle of underperformance. Ofsted calls them ‘stuck schools’ and they are often in areas of high disadvantage.
There are several reasons why this is the case. But the point here is that multi-academy trusts often take on these schools and try to improve them. Indeed, this is how the system works. Schools rated as inadequate by Ofsted have to become sponsored academies.
So, if you are in a trust with one or more of these schools it is quite likely that your results for disadvantaged pupils will be below the national average, at least initially.
The test is whether you can improve things. This is what the Sutton Trust report examines and the results are mixed.
It is certainly clear that academisation in itself isn’t a panacea. But then no school structure is ever going to be.
Many of these schools face very challenging circumstances and have done so for a long time. In recent years, they have also been affected by the erosion of local support services for families as well as real-terms cuts to school funding and teacher shortages.
This isn’t intended as an excuse. But we do need to understand the context and appreciate that sustainable improvement takes time to secure.
All of which brings us back to the point at hand. What is in the best interests of the pupils?
Opponents of academies may want to dismantle the system and turn the wheel back to universal local authority oversight. But consider the fact that there are now over 7,500 academies in England, more than a third of all schools. Unpicking this system would take considerable time and resources.
It is surely more productive and more beneficial to focus our energies on developing and improving the support and systems which are already in place rather than starting from scratch.
School leaders want to be allowed to get on with the job
And the most important job for any government, of whatever political complexion, must be to provide schools with the ingredients which are vital to success: sufficient funding, improved teacher supply and high-quality local services.
The Sutton Trust report provides us with a valuable insight about where we are and some useful suggestions about how we can get where we want to be. It helps to inform a system which is evolving.
What we know at ASCL is that our members, who are leaders in maintained schools and academies across the country, often tell us that they want to be allowed to get on with the job without any more sudden lurches in political direction.
In essence, this is an appeal for pragmatism over ideology. We have had far too much structural change in the education system over the past few years. There are imperfections in our hybrid system and tweaks need to be made. But it is hard to see how another sweeping structural reform would improve matters. Let’s stick rather than twisting yet again.