The headline of this blog sort of sums up my view of the performance of academy chains as I read it in the Sutton trust Report issued today. http://www.suttontrust.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/Chain-Effects-2015.pdf
As a local politician, I might be forgiven for saying that such a judgement might have been made about local authorities when they were more directly responsible for schools and not, as now, just the education young people living in their communities receive. Even though that battle for local authorities to be allowed to act as academy chains was lost, at least with the two historically large political parties, some time ago, the need for an understanding of the effects of geography on academy chains and their performance is worth monitoring.
The Sutton Trust report seems somewhat light on the effects of funding. Where chains have schools in different funding bands – Ark has most schools in London, but some in Birmingham and on the south coast – do schools with different funding levels perform differently? This might suggest that either the Pupil Premium or a national funding formula would be the better policy initiative to support.
The Sutton Trust accepts that generally London schools do better than schools elsewhere and academy chains with a strong London focus seem to do well. Is that because they are better funded; because they are nearer the DfE and can meet officials more often; have better leadership; or some other factor perhaps related to how we measure disadvantage?
I think, as in the days of local authorities there is a clear message about both leadership and purpose in this report. By itself neither is sufficient. Perhaps a score on leadership turnover might be added to a future report. Both Harris and Ark have strong central direction and some continuity of leadership. The best Chief Education Officers ran authorities where they knew what was wanted and set out to do more than just manage their schools. To the extent that hasn’t yet happened with the academy chain model means that governments seem to have replaced one system regarded as failing by another that probably isn’t yet any better overall. Whether the loss of democratic accountability is a price worth paying for the cost of the change is a matter for debate.
In defence of some academy chains they have taken on some very challenging schools. There may have been a degree of self-belief in the academy process that verged on naivety among all concerned. Changing the label on the door and upgrading the uniform may be necessary but not sufficient requirements for changing a school, but every academy chain needs to understand what works for the type of schools it is managing. The DfE needs to make sure they do so: hence the need for Ofsted to inspect academy chains in the same way as they do local authorities.
Finally, it would be interesting to rank academy chains on the central costs of running the chain compared with outcomes. I don’t know whether better performing chains are leaner or whether less well preforming chains need higher overheads to manage support for challenging schools? Certainly, salary costs needs looking at when some chains are paying their directors more than Directors of Childrens’ Services that are responsible for both far more schools and a social services arm of their service. Both, after all, are being paid with public money.