Adam James is Head of Faculty at a secondary comprehensive school in East London. He has an MA in educational Leadership from UCL and trained through Teach First.
Towards the end of the 20th century, nearly 90 per cent of pupils in inner London failed to leave school with five good O-levels. It was deemed that local councils were doing a poor job of running these schools as they believed the situation was so dire that intervention was futile.
The New Labour government encountered issues when it started to remove schools from local council control, as most schools that needed independence were to be found in Labour council strongholds, such as East London.
When Michael Gove became education secretary in 2010, he knew that he had to vastly expand the academies programme to improve educational standards. The Academies Act 2010 began this process, and allowed headteachers to mostly run schools how they wish, much like independent schools, albeit funded by the taxpayer.
PISA has rated this system highly internationally because of its level of autonomy and accountability. School autonomy has hugely widened choice for parents; it has allowed those who are most passionate about leading schools to set-up their own and run them in the way they see fit; it has allowed for multi-academy trusts (MATs) to help improve standards across several schools for tens of thousands of students; and it has shown how fundamentally important accountability is to a school’s success, when done properly.
It has led to the opening schools such as Katharine Birbalsingh’s famous Michaela school, Mossbourne Academy and Bedford Free School, to name a few of the most successful academies. In 2019, 54 per cent of all of Michaela school’s GCSE grades were Grade 7 or above (the old A/A* grades), compared to the national average of 22 per cent. This is remarkable for a school that is fully comprehensive and in one of the most challenging and deprived areas of inner London.
MATs, such as Harris and Ark, have replicated similar successes across hundreds of schools. The Harris Federation has transformed many troubled schools. As of 2019, 19 of its 23 secondary schools were rated ‘Outstanding’ and three rated as ‘Good’.
What is their key to success? Visionary and inspiring leadership and cast iron accountability structures. After analysing Ofsted reports of schools in England, McKinsey found that ‘the performance of a school almost never exceeds the quality of its leadership and management’. It found that ‘for every 100 schools that do not have good leadership and management, only one will have good standards of achievement’.
Academisation has also bred innovation outside of traditional schools. A prime example of this is Reach Academy in Feltham which has set up a ‘Hub’ that provides ‘cradle-to-career’ educational services. In addition to their two all-through schools, they provide support for children aged 0-2 years, and their parents through adult classes and employability workshops. Reach Academy have said that they aim to broaden this programme to support the wider community, not just students who feed into their school. This shows how providing autonomy to the education sector can help enable headteachers to become entrepreneurs and support entire communities.
So, ten years on from the Academies Act being passed, what is next for the academies programme? Despite many success stories, there are flaws within the system that have allowed poor leaders to drive schools to failure. There are many ways in which the academies programme can progress to help fulfil its ambition to ensure ‘educational excellence everywhere’. Full academisation, taking into account some lessons from the last decade, will ensure this.
Although there is government support for large MATs, more help must be given to ensure that poor performing standalone schools are supported and, if necessary, join a successful MAT. There needs to be more effort invested into finding these mismanaged and poor performing schools before their issues spiral out of control. This could be done through Ofsted, or through government support of successful MATs to inspect local schools.
Leadership from headteachers and groups of schools was key to London’s success. A good leader can make the seemingly impossible possible and impact thousands of lives. The Government should consider re-launching the National Leaders of Education (NLE) and National Leaders of Governance (NLG) programmes. They recognised outstanding individuals in these areas and allowed this expertise to be shared with schools in need of support.
Overall, ministers must make education a top policy priority again. Gove, the pioneer of academisation, ensured that education policy was a key pillar of the Conservative manifesto. The Government worked with many schools, MATs and other private organisations to drive the education sector forwards. Recently, this funding and focus has diminished somewhat and highly successful organisations, such as Ambition School Leadership, are less effective as a result. Other programmes that could have been implemented nationally, such as the London Challenge, were not pursued.
Academisation should not be a controversial topic. It has improved the life chances of hundreds of thousands of pupils, including the most disadvantaged, by driving up standards and allowing leaders to lead. The government needs to make this a policy priority once more.