The Academies Commission that reported last week was expected to be a whitewash. It was set up to help academies work better.
Yet it revealed very serious problems of achievement, school admissions, school improvement, sponsors, financial irregularities, and management.
The Commission chose to ignore the strongest evidence that academies are not improving achievement – see www.changingschools.org.uk under Research.
But even so it concluded that academies “have not performed markedly better than similar schools. Academisation alone does not guarantee improvement”.
It points out that schools’ inspectorate Ofsted has judged almost half of sponsored academies as inadequate or “requiring improvement”.
It accepts that a lot of the apparent improvement in results came about by academies cutting the number of disadvantaged pupils and by using easier alternatives to GCSE.
Some sponsored academies have shown “stunning success, but this is not common”.
Witnesses to the Commission were angry about the admissions procedure in academies and some other types of school. Many academies were dodging the rules by using complicated forms or telling parents their “child would not be happy here”.
Canary Wharf College, a free school in a London borough where half the children receive free meals, allowed in just one child with a free meal entitlement.
Less educated parents find it hard to use the admissions procedures and almost impossible to appeal against decisions.
It is also too easy for academies to expel pupils or shunt them into “alternative provision”. Academies have further segregated children in a country where richer and poorer children already attend different schools.
The Commission raises serious questions about quality control and school improvement. It describes governors who are not up to the job and a casual attitude from the government in choosing sponsors.
The report condemns the government’s minimal “fit and proper person” check on potential sponsors, and its slowness in dealing with problems.
The Department for Education has “red-rated” 40 academies, and the Office of the School Commission was monitoring 166, but few sponsors have been removed.
The report concludes, “The DfE should operate hard powers in relation to failure”.
The government has been equally slack in supervising how academies use public money. Taxpayers’ money is being siphoned off to pay huge salaries to academy heads and chief executives.
Finances are being kept secret and academies seem to be getting more than their fair share of funds. According to the Commission, the government has over-used the argument of “commercial confidentiality” to hide the truth. It has buried academy budgets by consolidating them into the Department for Education’s accounts.
The report builds a picture of academies that are out of touch with parents and of a system that doesn’t help schools to improve.
Many of its recommendations are attempts to substitute for what local councils used to do before academies were introduced.
The Commission wants councils to be involved in planning school places, choosing who is allowed to run local schools, and blowing the whistle when things go wrong.
This is a crucial step and we should demand that it is carried out. Even so, it is hard to see how independent academies can collaborate well with other schools and services.
The report also recommends that the government stop pressurising struggling primary schools to become academies, and instead encourage them to ‘federate’ with other local schools.
Finally, questions are raised about England’s tough system of school surveillance, including Ofsted. It leads to “basic adequacy” and schools are afraid of introducing changes to make learning interesting.
Terry Wrigley is an education expert and author of Another School is Possible
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