Could academy chains help solve the ‘workload challenge’?

31 July 2015

On Wednesday the Education Secretary announced the creation of three working groups to tackle unnecessary teacher workload. Speaking at the Teach First Impact Conference, Nicky Morgan said “there’s only so much that government can do to reduce workload…the real battle is about changing behaviour…on the ground”. The working groups will be led by “frontline professionals” with experience of working “on the ground”, but are they the most effective means of changing behaviour?

The effective utilisation of staff time is crucial to school performance: secondary schools spend on average 70 per cent of their budget on staff. These budgets will be under increasing pressure over the next five years. Rising costs, diminishing government funds and growing pupil numbers mean schools will have to find more efficient ways to manage the workforce. Rather than creating new working groups to address the problem, the Government should investigate whether there are already successful strategies within the school system.

Academy chains offer a potential solution to the workload challenge. Research published by Reform and authored by Parthenon-EY suggests that school chains can make savings of between 5 and 8 per cent in a school’s total budget, allowing schools to reinvest to develop best practice teaching and management. Yet more research is needed to understand how different chains’ strategies help save money and utilise staff effectively.

The National Audit Office (NAO) has recognised this knowledge gap and recommended that the Government does “more to identify the characteristics of an effective sponsor”. A report it published last year highlighted that the Department for Education (DfE) does not collect information on chains’ school improvement activities unless it has concerns about the performance of their schools.

An internal DfE review of academy chains in April 2014 identified 12 sponsors that it considered to be “system leaders”. Yet the review was unable to find a “clear relationship” between the sponsors’ performance and their strategies. Even if it had found some relationship, it is likely that the size of this sample was too small to draw any meaningful conclusions.

Despite the dearth of data on strategies that improve schools’ efficiency, there is a growing body of evidence on the wide variation in pupils’ outcomes across school chains. Research by the Sutton Trust published last week analysed the attainment of disadvantaged pupils in 34 sponsored academy chains between 2012 and 2014. The results show that the most effective chains improved performance among disadvantaged pupils by 12 per cent and the least effective reduced performance by 18 per cent.

The authors concluded that the extent of variation “clearly reflects the effectiveness of the strategies of the chain” but were unable to conclusively identify the reasons for the disparity in performance. They speculate that it might relate to “the previous history of the schools in the chain, how long they had been academies, attainment in their predecessor schools, or other factors”.

Little is known about strategies for both improving performance and controlling costs within schools. Yet it is clear that some chains run more efficiently than others. Nicky Morgan has already committed to creating more academies through the conversion of ‘failing’ and ‘coasting’ schools. The answer to unnecessary teacher workload may already lie there.

Amy Finch, Researcher, Reform




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