Academy chains unlocked I: stronger chains, better commissioning

20 September 2016

Today Reform launches the report Academy chains unlocked which includes results from the first survey of academy chain chief executives. Over the next three days, Reform will publish a series of blogs outlining the key findings and recommendations of the report. The first in this series is about the role of the academy chain and the importance of school commissioning.

Academy chains need proper backing to do their job. The results of Reform’s survey show that academy chain leaders want to have a role in reducing education inequality. When asked about their immediate, short-term priorities, 73 academy chain leaders cited reducing disparities in pupil attainment as very important, with a further 15 per cent citing it as important. However, many chain leaders commented that it is not easy to direct resources to schools that need it most. Only 20 per cent of chains said they funded their schools centrally, thereby being able to fund some schools more than others. A further 26 per cent said they wanted to do this, but cited headteachers and governors in the schools losing out as a barrier.

Reform recommends funding all academy chains centrally to remove this ambiguity and give chain leaders unequivocal autonomy to improve standards across the country. This would require government to fund academy chains, rather than individual academies, as routine, and make explicit that the chain can allocate funding as it sees fit. This must not, however, be a substitute for implementing a national funding formula for schools. Funding schools through chains on a national basis is needed to stop pockets of the country being left behind, and prevent chains from cherry-picking schools in high-funded areas.

School commissioning needs to be taken more seriously. The survey highlighted the varying contact that chain leaders have with school commissioners. Just as many chains said they had weekly contact with a national or regional school commissioner as said they had never been in contact with them. This was supported by interviews where some chains felt “in the loop” and therefore a go-to sponsor for taking on other schools, and others felt they had been overlooked.

This is particularly problematic when there is an absence of criteria for identifying failing academy chains, or schools within chains requiring rebrokerage (moving from one to chain to another). Interviews for the paper suggested that the previous Coalition Government encouraged chains already known to be struggling to take on many schools. That is a clear conflict of interest and, although the National Schools Commissioner has tried to demystify the school commissioner role, including publishing resources for chains wishing to expand, nothing prevents unwarranted favouritism of some chains over others taking place.

Reform recommends that the school commissioning body be independent to avoid this potential for conflict of interest. It also argues that Ofsted and school commissioners should publish criteria for identifying a ‘failing’ chain which, in the long-term, should be based on academy chain performance measures. Responsibility for financial accountability should also be a role for the independent body, and should be removed from the Department for Education.

The recommendations mean that commissioning will need to be strengthened in terms of skills and capacity. Reform recommends conducting a skills audit of the new body. However, there are a number of other recommendations in the report which will, in the long-term, reduce the reliance on school commissioners. These will be covered in the blogs on Wednesday and Thursday.

Amy Finch, Research Manager, Head of Education, Reform

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