Clash of the manifestos: the running of academies
"Over 4,000 schools are already benefiting from academy status, giving them more power over discipline and budgets. And nearly 800 of the worst-performing primary schools have been taken over by experienced academy sponsors with a proven track record of success. This is improving education for our children"—Conservative manifesto
"The Government has attempted to oversee thousands of schools from the centre. This approach is not working. Underperformance is going unchallenged"—Labour manifesto
Academies, including free schools, are directly accountable to the Secretary of State for Education, while all other state-funded schools are accountable to local authorities (with both inspected by Ofsted). It's this approach that Labour says isn't working, while the Conservatives insist it is.
We don't know either way on primary schools, because little evidence exists. For secondary schools, based on analysis of GCSE results, it looks as though performance at schools that were often previously underperforming and taken over by a sponsor (sponsored academies) has improved faster than other schools. But there's mixed evidence on schools that were generally high performing and have switched over to become academies (converter academies).
Academies are run by academy trusts, don't have to follow the national curriculum, and tend to have greater freedom to set their own term times and admissions (although this is a complex area). They're funded directly by the Department for Education (DfE) rather than the local authority, meaning that academies have more control over their budgets. They also have fewer requirements when it comes to their school behaviour policy.
They still have to follow the same rules on special educational needs and exclusions as other state schools, and are required to provide a curriculum that is "balanced and broadly based, and includes English, mathematics and science". In terms of admissions, they also still have to follow the same rules as other state schools, but can set their own arrangements rather than these being determined by the local authority as is the case for many non-academies.
Evidence on the extent to which academies are using these new freedoms is mixed. A 2014 survey of academies by the DfE found that 87% say they are now buying in services previously provided by the Local Authority from elsewhere, 55% have changed their curriculum, 8% have increased the length of their school day and 4% have changed their school terms.
While various other changes were also reported, it's not clear to what extent these are a direct result of academy conversion rather than changes that would have taken place regardless.
The Conservatives say that the academy system is "improving education for our children". In terms of primary schools, there's little evidence available to prove this either way.
In sponsored secondary academies, school performance has increased more quickly than in similar non-academy schools, according to research by academics at LSE that looks at GCSE results of academies that opened before 2010. The improvement is greatest in schools that have been academies for the longest, implying that the effect of academy status has a gradual impact on improving performance.
In converter secondary academies, the evidence is mixed. Research by the National Foundation for Educational Research concluded that academy status had made no difference to the progress made in converter academies at GCSE two years after opening, compared to similar schools in the maintained sector over the same time period. The same research found that sponsored academies were performing better than similar non-academy schools over the same time frame.
The other way to look at performance is by looking at Ofsted inspections, but there are difficulties with this comparison. We examine this in our briefing on academies and maintained schools (written in collaboration with the National Foundation for Educational Research).
Labour also says that underperformance in schools is going unchallenged. A report by MPs on the Public Accounts Committee said that oversight bodies had not formally intervened in all academies identified as underperforming. It said that in September 2013 179 open academies should have received formal interventions but only 15 received a warning notice.
The government said in response that a new management system would aid recordings of interventions in underperforming academies and that a new risk assessment tool had been developed. It also said that the specific circumstances of the school are taken into account when deciding whether and how to intervene.
The Conservative manifesto refers to the "proven track record of success" of sponsors taking over poorly performing primary schools. The Public Accounts Committee report questioned how well the effectiveness of sponsors is being evaluated. They criticised the DfE for allowing academy chains to grow in size without independent assessments of their capacity and capability to do so. Currently, the further expansion of 17 sponsors (out of 704 approved sponsors) has been formally paused because of concerns over the performance of their schools, according to figures from November last year.
The government has said it agrees with the Committee's recommendation to get independent judgements of sponsors' capacity. It said that the new approach for Ofsted to inspect groups of academies in Multi Academy Trusts was working and "has supported firm action on sponsors where needed".
Regional Schools Commissioners were established as an extra layer of oversight in September 2014. They have responsibility for deciding which applications for academies can be taken forward, monitoring academy performance, and also for taking action when an academy is underperforming. We don't have much evidence on how well they're working yet.
Parts of this article come from a briefing written for us by the National Foundation for Educational Research. See the full briefing here.