A brief history of academies and education reform
What are multi-academy trusts and how did we get here? Mark Lehain provided a brief history of education in March 2018 as Director of PTE before joining New Schools Network as Interim Director until September 2018.
The summer of 1988 - what a time to be alive! A booming economy. “Die Hard” at the cinema. The second “Summer of Love” and acid house. The Seoul Olympics.
And, of course, Kenneth Baker’s Education Reform Act.
As well as introducing a National Curriculum, it kick-started the move towards much greater frontline autonomy across the country.
The Act took Higher Education (HE) and Further Education (FE) provision away from Local Authorities and paved the way for the same in schools with the creation of City Technology Colleges (CTCs) and Grant-Maintained (GM) Status. For everyone else, Local Management of Schools (LMS) meant financial control handed over to Heads and governors. Overall, it meant schools increasingly running their own affairs.
Thirty years on, it feels like an appropriate time to reflect on where we’ve got to and examine some of the lessons learned.
Where have we got to then? The landscape has been transformed. There were originally only 15 CTCs opened, all secondary schools, and each with a sponsoring business or individual. Massively popular, they prepared the ground for existing schools to convert to grant-maintained status: at their peak there were just under 1200 of these, making up 3% of primaries and 19% of secondaries. Labour abolished GM schools when they came into power, only to recreate them as “City Academies” in 2000 as a way of dealing with the very worst performing schools.
In May 2010 there were 203 of these; today there now well over 7000 academies of all varieties, and just over 70% of secondary pupils and 25% of primary pupils attend one. They are growing in number every month, and increasingly coming together in multi-academy trusts to improve the means by which they can educate and transform the lives of their children.
As we reach the point where the majority of children are in academies, I think three ingredients were particularly important in successes over the last thirty years: allowing new players into the system, the freedom to innovate, and transparency and failure mechanisms.
Whether it was business leaders sponsoring CTCs and City Academies, existing schools setting up MATs, or groups of teachers and parents bidding for free schools, a common feature since 1988 has been opening up the operation of state schools to people other than local councils. Some of the most successful schools or groups in England have been started by people who before 1988 wouldn’t have been able to.
People like Stanley Kalms, David Ross and Phillip Harris didn’t just put money into “their” schools, they were heavily involved in many aspects of their development and played a part in oversight once open. Steve Lancashire and Michael Wilkins could have stuck with running one or two schools, but they felt they could make a difference to more children by growing the Reach2 and Outwood Grange groups. The parents who helped start my old school, Bedford Free School, didn’t want it to be just for their kids but anyone who wanted to attend.
All these people had “skin in the game” if things didn’t work out – be it their children at the school or name over the door, and their reputation on the line if things didn’t work out. New blood and clear association with outcomes have been games changers.
Linked, but not limited, to new players has been the increasing freedom to innovate gained over time. Being allowed to do stuff differently doesn’t mean that people will do so. However, following the lead of the CTCs, GM schools and City Academies, more and more people have developed and refined practices which are now available for others to be inspired by or benefit from. Examples include Outwood Grange’s Curriculum Led Financial Planning, Ark’s Maths Mastery programme, the “Astrea Promise”, Inspiration Trust’s knowledge-rich curriculum… the list goes on. Originally created by professionals for their own schools, now the whole system can adopt or adapt them, raising standards across the system.
The third key lesson since 1988 has been of the importance of transparency and effective failure mechanisms. No system can be perfect and there has always been a small number of failing schools. In the past these were often left to linger on, to the detriment of their pupils. And while no one could claim that we’ve a regime that avoided all failures, things are a lot better than they were. Academies are more transparent in structure, intervention occurs more systematically when things go badly wrong, and schools are generally re-brokered quicker.
It’s not all plain sailing though, and the academies movement faces big challenges. Governance has been shown to be weak in some cases. Salaries in some poorly performing trusts needs challenging. The extra-curricular activities of a small number of people associated with high-profile schools have made the front pages. And we cannot deny that the collapse of WCAT has raised questions about the ability to spot such problems earlier.
However, in many cases these issues have only been spotted because of the greater transparency and accountability that academies face. Sunlight is the best disinfectant, and there is no doubt that academies are under the spotlight!
Business leaders, charities and others have added so much to the system – we would be mad stop the influx of ideas and talent. Evidence shows that MATs are more financially effective and bucking the trend staff-wise, channelling better teachers into tougher schools. At a time of tight budgets and recruitment, this is so important.
The opportunities before us are immense. Before too long many of the remaining schools under LA control will convert; we just need to ensure that our houses are in order, to enable their pupils to feel the benefits from day one.
And the good news is we’ve thirty years of experience to draw upon for this, so while 2018 is unlikely to be a third “Summer of Love” for academies, we can enjoy an 80s revival in our music and fashion without having to learn the lessons of school autonomy all over again.