James Croft gives his take on plans to force “coasting” schools to become academies as revealed in today’s Queen’s Speech.
A shortage of high quality academy sponsors and an inefficient brokering system threaten successful delivery of government’s plans for improvement of coasting schools.
It has been evident for some time that there is a shortage of high quality academy sponsors with the capacity to take on and turnaround challenging schools.
In face of the government’s ambitious plans for “coasting schools”, fleshed out in some more detail in today’s Queens’ Speech, regional school commissioners are focusing their efforts on persuading individual academy heads to rise to the challenge through forming a Multi-Academy or Umbrella Trust.
The problem with this strategy, though convincing in theory, is that there is little incentive for the heads to do so on the current model, which provides inadequate capital for the development of such arrangements, and constrains these trusts in important ways from attracting and deploying the resources necessary for sustainable school improvement, such as constraints on the pooling of General Annual Grant funding, accumulation of surpluses, borrowing (whether secured against assets or on funding agreements), deployment of capital, and acquisition and disposal of fixed assets – all inhibit chains from deploying resources where they are needed most.
To change this there needs to be a comprehensive review of the financial controls operating on Multi-Academy and Umbrella Trusts.
There is a strong case to be made for opening up new supply by allowing a broader profile of education management organisation entry.
A considerable number of interested and internationally-proven providers have been put off to date by the prohibitive conditions imposed by central government. These providers have expertise in school improvement far exceeding that of many sponsors already engaged in managing schools. They include for-profit service providers, of which the education secretary remains politically uneasy. These should be re-engaged on an open-tender basis.
There are a number of advantages to this approach. A pilot of an open-tendered framework, allowing an element of price competition, would encourage realistic market-based appraisal of the costs of effecting the base level of improvement ministers expect, while at the same time providing an opportunity for innovation in performance measurement to incentivise high aspirations. This might be caste along the lines of a social impact bond, which model has proven successful in other public service markets.
This would be an altogether more effective approach to attracting the kind of suppliers we need than central government brokering could ever be.
The limited nature of the sponsor pool, together with an inefficient (and competitively stagnant) brokering system for matching schools in need of assistance with viable sponsors, have also resulted in the untenable situation in which almost half of the sponsored academies that have had an inspection post-intervention are themselves rated ‘inadequate’ or ‘requiring improvement’.
While it’s likely that the government will wait on 2017 and 2018 outcomes before actioning plans to “speed up the process” of taking over schools (to see if schools have risen to the challenges of the new testing regime), it is imperative that it take steps to address these issues in advance, before the credibility of its academy programme is further undermined.
There is good evidence internationally to suggest that greater autonomy in the governance and management of local schools has beneficial effects, but restrictive entry requirements and politically compromised central brokering leaves the system vulnerable to variable sponsor quality.