Plan A+: Unleashing the potential of academies

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Since the 1980s, successive governments have experimented with the degree of autonomy afforded to schools in England. While the introduction of the National Curriculum, Ofsted and “floor targets” have strengthened central accountability, initiatives such as grant-maintained schools and academies have sought to exempt individual institutions from government prescription.

The Coalition Government has taken this further than ever by allowing any school to convert to academy status: there are now over 1,500 academies in England, with more control over their budget and freedom from the National Curriculum and national pay and conditions. There is a substantial body of evidence to show that giving schools more autonomy can have a positive effect on education outcomes.

The academies survey

The Schools Network has conducted the biggest survey of academies to date in collaboration with Reform, with 478 academies responding – nearly one third of the total. The survey sought to investigate the reasons schools are becoming academies, the extent to which they are using academy freedoms to innovate to improve outcomes, and whether giving schools more autonomy is sufficient to drive innovation and improvement. It shows that many academies are innovating and striving to improve the quality of their education. However, so far few are using the autonomy they have as academies to change their workforce or educational offer radically.

The key findings of the survey were:

> Funding. 78 per cent of schools chose to become an academy in part because of a perception that they would receive additional funding. 39 per cent said this was the main reason for their conversion. Three quarters (76 per cent) say that academy status has improved or greatly improved their financial outlook. Many academies say these freed resources have helped them to absorb cuts elsewhere in their budgets, in particular to sixth form funding. In some cases this funding is being used to employ additional staff or broaden curriculum provision.

> A desire for autonomy. The other main reasons cited by schools for conversion were a sense of financial autonomy (73 per cent), educational autonomy (71 per cent) and freedom to buy services from providers other than the local authority (70 per cent). 57 per cent of schools wanted the opportunity to innovate to raise standards, while half (51 per cent) wanted less local authority involvement in their school.

> Curriculum. Only a third of schools (35 per cent) said that obtaining freedom from the National Curriculum was a reason for them becoming an academy. About a third of academies (31 per cent) have made some changes to their curriculum, with another third (31 per cent) planning to do so. These are typically minor and often changes which they would have made anyway. The most common change is to stop providing ICT or design technology at Key Stage 4. One innovative school reported that, “Our curriculum has always pushed the boundaries of the [National Curriculum], but now teachers ‘feel’ freer to make choices that are creative and support high academic standards.” A more representative comment was, “There are changes but not any that were not possible under the previous regime.” Two fifths (39 per cent) of academies believe that the National Curriculum already allows them sufficient freedom.

> Pay and conditions. Some schools report changing their pay policy in order to pay good teachers more, but two thirds of academies (65 per cent) have not altered staff terms and conditions and have no plans to do so. Many agreed with staff or governors on conversion that they would not make changes. 60 per cent said that the existence of national pay and conditions makes it culturally difficult for them to vary pay and conditions in their school. 30 per cent said that TUPE regulations prevented them from making changes, while 20 per cent cited union opposition as a factor. 40 per cent of academies said they had no need or desire to incentivise or reward staff using pay.

> Admissions and school day and year. The majority of academies have no plans to alter the school day (76 per cent) or year (55 per cent). Two thirds (64 per cent) will not change their admissions policy.

> Autonomy. Many schools complained about the considerable regulation that still applies to academies, such as the limits on expansion for good schools and local authorities’ control of school funding. One school said, “I would like Mr Gove to put his money where his mouth is about academy freedoms. Either we are independent or we are not. If the former, please stop applying central rules around how we operate.”

School autonomy is encouraging good practice to develop and spread, and some academies are taking advantage of their freedoms to do things differently, and better. Many, however, are not: many of the changes being implemented in academies do not actually require academy freedoms and are equally possible within the constraints of the National Curriculum and national pay and conditions. Many academies feel inhibited by the continued existence of these national frameworks.

Driving innovation and improvement

The survey shows that simply giving schools more autonomy does not ensure that they will innovate and improve. It is also clear that what is innovative in one school may already be established practice in another. Research suggests that there are three further key elements to drive system-wide improvement: collaboration, accountability and competition.

Collaboration

School-to-school collaboration is a vitally important mechanism for improving the quality of teaching. Collaboration is necessary for this because the highest quality continuous professional development (CPD) is essentially collaborative, involving lesson observation, mentoring and sharing of best practice. CPD of this nature is at its most effective across schools, and many schools work together on CPD for staff. The most effective collaboration goes further than simply sharing best practice and involves richer joint development of practice.

Most schools engage in collaboration to some extent and there is a variety of different mechanisms for this, with varying degrees of formality. Federations of schools have shared governing bodies and operate as a single legal entity, usually with very close working between the constituent schools. Academy chains tend to have strong central accountability and a degree of prescription, with schools operating relatively autonomously within this framework. Organisations such as The Schools Network provide support, share and develop best practice and provide advocacy and quality assurance, but do not perform a governance or accountability role.

Other kinds of networks also exist, with autonomous schools agreeing to undertake a degree of mutual cooperation and collaboration. Some, like Challenge Partners, consist of excellent schools engaging in mutual support and challenge. Looser groupings – often a secondary school acting as a hub for surrounding primaries – might undertake joint working on a regular basis and pool activities from teacher development to HR services. In some networks, like HertsCam, a university takes a coordinating role.

These different types of networks are not necessarily mutually exclusive; schools could be part of multiple groupings serving different purposes or with different types of school. The essential factor is that this kind of school improvement system can help to improve all schools, instead of focusing solely on those that are failing. This kind of collaboration can also tackle coasting schools and schools that are good but want to become even better. The new network of Teaching Schools could be an important component of a self-led, self-improving school system.

Accountability

Effective accountability mechanisms can drive improvement in educational outcomes, particularly when allied with school autonomy. It is commonly assumed that deep accountability, based on data and inspections, must be undertaken by government and its agencies. But in fact a self-led, self-improving school system can also be self-accountable.

Many academy chains hold their schools rigorously to account for their performance. But it is also possible to have deep accountability without a centre. Some networks of schools are developing systems of lateral accountability with schools voluntarily agreeing to undergo annual reviews by their peers. This is a case of outstanding schools challenging themselves and each other in the sorts of ways traditionally associated with Ofsted.

This kind of peer accountability has huge benefits over the traditional centralised model. Schools take much more responsibility themselves – both for how they are performing and how well their peers are doing. It is no longer assumed that it is government’s responsibility to fix something when it has gone wrong. Most importantly, this kind of accountability can be effective for every school, not just those at the bottom, and encourages schools at whatever level of performance to continue improving. By being involved in holding their peers to account, the schools performing this role will also learn and benefit themselves.

Another major advantage is that this kind of accountability can be more effective and significantly more responsive than centralised methods. Schools will get to know one another in depth, allowing them to get a much more detailed picture of what is happening than Ofsted can achieve or performance tables can reflect. Decentralised accountability can also mean quicker and more effective intervention when something goes wrong, or if signs of deterioration emerge.

Competition

Even though autonomy and deep collaboration are excellent drivers of school improvement, it does not follow that schools will pursue this course. Effective competition between schools is a key factor in incentivising schools to use their autonomy and seek greater collaboration.

Competition can drive collaboration very effectively: if every school needs to improve then every school has an incentive to collaborate. Competition between schools is not a zero-sum game, since the whole system can get better; one school improving does not mean that another must get worse. Collaboration can also take place beyond the local area if there are specific issues inhibiting collaboration between local schools. Competition and collaboration are not, then, mutually exclusive, but rather can be mutually reinforcing. Even the best schools have an incentive to support other schools, since the evidence demonstrates that collaboration improves the performance of every school, even the high-performing school doing the supporting.

The Government should address the problem of limited capacity constraining choice by making it easier for existing schools to expand and, where possible, for new schools to open. As the survey presented in this report shows, many academies are keen to have the freedom to do this. There are, however, two major barriers to this: a requirement for them to apply to the Young People’s Learning Agency (YPLA) to increase their intake, and the absence of a genuine per-pupil funding system, which would ensure that schools would receive proportionate additional funding for additional pupils.

Plan A+

The Government’s task now is to unleash the full potential of the academies movement. Despite their greater freedoms, many academies are being held back by the continued regulation of the rest of the school system. As the survey presented in this report shows, national frameworks on curriculum and pay and conditions inhibit some academies from innovating in these areas. The Department for Education should adopt a “Plan A+” (Autonomy-Plus). By removing cultural and regulatory barriers to autonomy and innovation, the Government can pave the way for all schools to innovate further and faster, rapidly developing best practice to raise standards that can then spread throughout the system.