Academies: a model education?

This Reform report by Richard Tice, the Chair of Governors at Northampton Academy, one of the first fifteen academies, examines at first hand the challenges of trying to turn around a failing school and the impact of the academy model in rapidly improving such a school. The report finds that the application of the management independence of the academy model could benefit all state schools through the reform of Government policy. It makes additional recommendations for significant reform in the English state education system, in order to produce more good school places in every region.

In Reform‘s report, Richard Tice describes his experience since September 2004, when he was appointed Chair by the Northampton Academy’s sponsor, the United Learning Trust.

The Lings 1,300 pupil comprehensive in Northampton was viewed locally as a sink school, with an average of just 19 per cent of pupils securing five GCSEs at grades A*-Cs over the eight years from 1997 to 2004. It had a surplus of places over demand, poor discipline and a truancy rate of around 15 per cent. There were major issues with senior management, teaching quality, staff morale and staff absenteeism. Poor teachers had been allowed to stay at the school due to the cost and difficulty of removing them. Other teachers lacked support and proper training to improve their performance. National pay scales meant that it was hard to reward and incentivise teachers.

The report shows how the academy programme and the independent model of governance have introduced vital new impetus through new leadership, freedom of management and innovation. The problems of improving discipline are explored in depth, with the difficulties of appeals and then appeals on appeals. There is a strong focus on supporting and improving teaching and on the restraints of the national curriculum and over-testing.

The new multi-million pound building created a modern, pleasant environment with excellent facilities at the school. However, new buildings alone do not improve performance. Results started to improve when changes in management and culture were put in place with their consequent impact on teaching and discipline, even in the old buildings.

School turnaround is a slow process which does not happen overnight. It is still two school years until the first cohort who started at the Academy under the new management take their GCSEs. However there are clear signs of significant improvement on numerous measures:

  • the rolling three year average against the main GCSE benchmark is substantially higher than the previous school;
  • truancy has fallen by a third to less than 10 per cent;
  • supply teaching costs have fallen by over 75 per cent, as staff absenteeism has dramatically reduced;
  • the sixth form is over 50 per cent larger;
  • there are almost three applications for every place; and
  • the school is working closely with the local community and sharing facilities.

Whilst the academy programme is right in concept, there continue to be a number of practical and systemic issues that prevent academy leaders from having the full freedom to transform the teaching quality and discipline in their schools.

The ability to fully manage and incentivise the teaching staff at academies and therefore drive up teaching quality is hampered by the continued influence of nationally agreed pay scales and working practices. The teaching trade unions have consistently opposed the freedom of academies to set teachers pay and conditions. They have intervened during the establishment of academies to try and limit the impact of new pay and conditions, by leveraging the position of their existing teaching members.

Academies lack the final decision making power to exclude disruptive pupils. They are still subject to review from external Independent Appeals Panels, which are able to overturn the schools’ rulings. This means that disruptive pupils may be allowed to remain at the school. It also dampens any deterrent effect that potential exclusion may have on other pupils.

The academies programme has given significant management freedom to schools, which is the key factor in being able to drive better standards in teaching and discipline. The report shows there is an opportunity for the academy programme to be deepened and widened to deliver further benefits to more young people across England.

The key to unlocking the potential of the Government’s academy model is for the following issues to be addressed:

  • The model of freedom of management and governance is the critical part of the Government’s academy programme rather than the provision of new school buildings. The management freedom given to academies should be rolled out across the whole state sector. This will facilitate improvements across the entire state sector rather than only in the 400 planned academies.
  • At present the teaching unions are acting as a block to reform, seeking to maintain national pay scales and complex terms and conditions. However the teaching unions potentially have a great role to play in improving teacher training and development and supporting the profession. The teaching unions’ role in education needs to be transformed. They need to be brought more into the process of reform.
  • The Government needs to abolish the Independent Appeals Panels for exclusions from academies. This will give schools ultimate authority over discipline and enable schools to exclude disruptive pupils and will also have a deterrent effect on others, whose behaviour undermines discipline standards.
  • The role of testing, league tables and the National Curriculum in the day-to-day life of schools should be dramatically reduced. This would enable teachers to exercise greater professional judgement and school leaders to direct resources where they are most needed.