Creating successful Academies

Published on Monday, 21 January 2013 11:51
Written by Christine Gilbert

The scale and speed of the expansion of the academies programme are dramatic. In May 2010 there were 203 academies; by November 2012 there were 2456. There could not be a more important time to explore the implications of this expansion

The introduction of academies has provided much-needed vitality to the school system. There are stunning successes which have raised expectations of what can be achieved, particularly in the most deprived areas. But overall the improvement has not been strong enough to transform the life-chances of children everywhere. Academy status alone is not a panacea for improvement.

I was invited to chair the independent Academies Commission, set up by the RSA and the Pearson Think Tank, to examine how the system needs to adapt to a future when the majority of schools may have academy status. The evidence we received demonstrated that school autonomy needs to be underpinned by strong improvement strategies if the academies programme is to realise its transformative potential.

The Commission identified three imperatives. The first is a forensic focus on teaching and its impact on pupils' learning. This seems obvious, but failing to focus on it is a key reason why weak schools fail their children.

Successful academies know schools need other schools – they learn from each other. So although independence is a core part of an academised system, so too is interdependence –schools working together to improve teaching and learning for them all.

This has important implications for the role of local authorities. They should embrace a stronger role in education - not as providers of improvement services but as champions of children's needs and interests. They should phase out their own improvement services and devolve them to school-led partnerships.

The second imperative is to ensure academies are equally accessible to children from all backgrounds. Many have an impressive commitment to social inclusion but some take the low road to improvement by manipulating admissions. This must be eradicated.

Our third imperative is to ensure academies demonstrate their moral purpose and professionalism by providing greater accountability to pupils, parents and other stakeholders. There has to be enough support and challenge in the system for academies to use their independence properly.

The role of school governors is pivotal here and needs greater attention. Governors told the Commission they felt ill-equipped to take on the leadership role expected of them in an academised system. Training for governors should be given much higher priority and the posts of chairs should be advertised.

High standards of transparency and accountability should apply to academy chains as much as to academies themselves. The DfE should design a selection process for academy sponsors that is open, fair, rigorous and supported by clear criteria.

The Commission's overarching conclusion is that if these three imperatives - a forensic focus on teaching and learning, fair access and greater accountability - are addressed, it is far more likely that the rapid rise in the number of academies will bring about system reform. Our vision for a successful system is of a national community of schools, each independent but working together with moral purpose and professionalism to serve children better than they have ever been served.

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