Khadeem Duncan-Banerjee is Founding CEO of Amadeus Learning Partnership and a Board Director at Nene Education Trust (NET).
The Department for Education has released the latest Consolidated Annual Report and Accounts for the Academies sector in England. One of the significant risks to the Academies policy sighted in the report is “a risk of there being an insufficient number of high-quality sponsors and MATs (multi-academy trusts) available, in the right geographical areas, to support underperforming LA (local authority) schools, and to take on underperforming academies that are transferred from their previous trusts”.
I believe this risk is going to increase greatly as we continue to see an astonishing number of schools across the country dropping two or even three Ofsted inspection grades under the new education inspection framework.
Combine this with growing issues about headteacher recruitment and retention, the effects of Covid-19 and the need for many MATs to focus on improving the challenging schools they already have in their flock, and you have something of a perfect storm.
The department has tried to mitigate these risks. The report draws our attention to credible interventions such as the Trust Capacity Fund (TCaF), encouraging more good and outstanding schools to become sponsors (though the reality is many of these schools may not be Outstanding for much longer), and providing leadership and development for MAT Leaders.
I feel however that in order to find solutions for the future, it would be wise to review and learn from successes in our past; and to consider how we can render these to help solve challenges coming over the horizon.
Pre-2010, Sponsored Academies were a major policy of the Blair Government. A successor to City Technology Colleges (CTCs), they were first established in 2002 to transform education outcomes for schools in areas of high disadvantage with historic underperformance.
As alluded to in the name, these schools were sponsored by a range of individuals and organisations including philanthropists, businesses, charities, education foundations, independent schools, universities, etc. There was a requirement for the sponsor to commit up to £2 million towards their project, but this was waived in 2009 to encourage more potential sponsors to come forward. Schools could either be sponsored individually or in groups (then known as ‘academy federations’). Many of our strongest and most successful Multi-Academy Trusts began their journey in this way including ARK, Harris Federation, Dixons Academies Trust, United Learning and many others.
The expertise and support brought to the table by sponsors, combined with excellent academy leadership and governance, resulted in incredible improvements in school standards, educational attainment and proved to be very popular with parents.
Sponsors helped to drive innovation, and developed a culture and ethos of high aspiration and achievement which permeated every aspect of the school and its community. Sponsored Academies also had subject specialisms, which enabled greater opportunity for them to work with their sponsoring individual/organisation to develop a highly unique and industr- led curriculum that could be underpinned with real investment in facilities and opportunities for learners.
Considering performance data from this era, a DfE publication in 2007 concluded that “the proportion of pupils getting five good GCSEs including English and Maths in [Sponsored] Academies rose by 6.2 percentage points in one year – six times the national improvement rate” and “the proportion of pupils in [Sponsored] Academies getting five or more good GCSE passes has doubled, compared to their predecessor schools five years ago (an increase from 21 per cent to 42 per cent)”.
A report from the National Audit Office in the same year found Sponsored Academies admitted “higher proportions of deprived children than live in their immediate area, and nonetheless are improving at a faster rate than schools nationally”; that Sponsored Academies were “popular with parents and staff”, and that “taking account of both pupils’ personal circumstances and prior attainment, on average, [Sponsored] Academies are improving performance at GCSE and national tests substantially better than other schools”.
The programme had its challenges. Progress was not always uniformly seen across the board, and some schools took longer to improve than they perhaps should have done, considering the investment and resources they were in receipt of.
However, on balance this policy was a major success, and was further expanded and developed by the Coalition Government in 2010 under Michael Gove.
So what can we learn and how can we use it to support our efforts in the future? My recommendations to policy makers are that they should explore how we can utilise the expertise, innovation, ambition and potential opportunity for investment from such sponsors as philanthropists, businesses, charities, education foundations, independent schools, universities, etc to establish new multi-academy trusts that can turnround schools in challenging circumstances that have suffered from historic underperformance.
This should be done through sponsors working with local highly successful educationalists to form new MATs which, through their leadership personnel and governance arrangements, can demonstrate to the department how it will ensure the transformation of the schools within the trust.
A sponsor could also identify an already established strong school or Academy Trust to work with that can bring school improvement capacity to support transformation. Either way, I believe that looking beyond our sector to work collaboratively with credible individuals and organisations that want to give back to their communities, improve social mobility and help shape the workforce of the future can only be a good thing in our mission to transform the life chances of every child and young person in our country.