Can today’s sponsored academies hope to emulate the achievements of the early pioneers, the first academies?

Bill Watkin, Operational Director SSAT, writes…

There are now so many sponsored academies that we cannot think of them as an exceptional few. They are expected to transform standards today, but without any special intervention support beyond that of the sponsor.

  • So there is a risk to new sponsored academies: how can they make the changes expected of them?
  • There is a risk to schools that sponsor academies: how can they turn around a failing school without damaging their own position?
  • There is a risk to the original sponsored academies: how can they avoid being lost in the vast numbers of academies of all descriptions, becoming again an anonymous and vulnerable few?

Then and now
The support structures and resources that were at the disposal of the early academies are no longer available. Policymakers have, since 2010, responded to harsh economic realities, shifted their focus and adjusted academy strategy.

The priority in the academies programme before 2010 was to address entrenched underperformance in secondary schools. Since 2010, the government has concentrated on making school autonomy widely available, on making academy freedoms available to all schools – with the proviso that they were judged to have earned this autonomy.

A neglected minority
Four years ago, I expressed some concern that the government’s focus at that time on generating huge numbers of new converter academies brought with it a risk: that the efforts of the preceding 10 years to transform standards in our most needy and vulnerable schools would be undermined and that sponsored academies would revert to the status of neglected minority from which they had fought so hard to emerge.

The academies programme started almost 15 years ago by targeting low-performing schools in urban environments. With new leadership, new governance, a new building and uniform, new structures, a new ethos, and an academy sponsor, this was to be a journey of transformational change.

And research suggests that there was a large improvement in the first 100 or so schools to become “city academies” within four years of their conversion.

Early claims
However, some early champions of the academies programme may have claimed perhaps too much for the role of academy status in transforming standards (not all were unqualified success stories, of course! And significant improvements in standards were not confined to academies alone).

There was a feeling too that they may have claimed too much, even exclusive, moral purpose for the academies programme. But it is true that they worked with some of the most vulnerable, fragile and needy schools; they were required to transform communities, as well as schools; their populations tended to have more than the local proportion of FSM and SEN pupils and a lower ability intake profile than local schools. So the temptation to make much of the moral impetus is understandable, and even in many cases justified.

But, of course, extraordinary work was also being done in other schools as well. And – as for moral purpose – I have not yet come across a school leader (of an academy or any other kind of school) who wasn’t driven by a moral impetus to do the very best for the young people in the school and the community it serves.

But the early academies really did make a big difference to thousands of the most vulnerable young people and to many struggling communities. They brought about a transformation in attitudes and standards, they re-engaged parents and the wider community, they re-connected with employers; they provided a secure, orderly and healthy learning environment and a vibrant community hub.

SSAT played an important role in fostering a community of academy leaders. These were principled educators who shared a common cause, who worked in schools across the country, often not readily accepted, even actively resisted and opposed, by local schools, authorities and community groups, and without regional networks. They came together to support each other, in a by academies for academies spirit of sharing ideas, strategies and expertise. And this family spirit is still happening: longstanding supportive relationships were established over the years. It can be found within some of the chains, and SSAT is still committed to the national network of academy leaders across the whole country.

Making a difference
In general, Academies – like all schools – tackled different problems and challenges in different ways; they enjoyed different levels of success and a different trajectory over time. But on the whole they achieved what they were tasked with doing:

  1. raise standards
  2. make an impact on the wider community
  3. build a bridge with the business sector.

In my experience, early academy principals maintained a relentless focus on standards; they tackled behaviour, attendance, appearance, aspirations, relationships, self-esteem, attitudes, values, finance, teaching and learning, training, structures, data, the physical environment, the ethos and the role of the school and schooling, with a relentless focus on quality and a refusal to accept anything other than the best for their students and staff.

In this, they were helped in very significant, and generously-funded, ways:

Support for early academies

  • Additional start-up funding

There were different funding streams for academies to address and overhaul the predecessor school structures and problems, and to help kick-start the launch of the new academy. There has been a steady decline in the funding available in recent years.

  • Principal designate

The new academy principal was appointed up to five terms ahead of the academy opening, making possible carefully considered planning, in-depth research and analysis, established relationships with community groups. This practice largely finished in 2010.

  • The Academy Support Programme

SSAT held – on behalf of each academy – a significant resource which it deployed according to the academy’s particular needs. Somewhere between 90 and 180 days, each year for the first two years of the academy’s life, of expert consultancy and practitioner support and intervention were at the academy’s disposal. The funding ceased in 2011.

  • The Academy Leadership Induction Programme

Each new principal designate was, on appointment, matched to a more established academy principal and was funded for up to 5 days of telephone, email and face-to-face time with a focus on peer support with the initial challenges faced. The funding ceased in 2011.

  • The building programme

Academies were not the only schools to get a new build and many were able to make a transformational change even before they were able to move into their new buildings. But most would acknowledge the impact – on pupil and parent attitudes to learning, on staff morale, on pedagogical possibilities and on standards – of moving into a new building. There is still an academy building programme, but on a more limited scale.

  • The role of the sponsor

Whether an individual philanthropist, a charitable foundation, a university or a local employer, academy sponsors brought a sense of opportunity and aspiration to their academies. They were determined to make a difference and brought to bear their networks, influence, energy and professionalism to the transformation, setting the ethos, driving the governance, and celebrating the achievements.

  • Schools sponsoring schools

Academy sponsors are changing. The early sponsors are still there of course; many chains are still growing, and they are still transforming standards. But increasingly it is outstanding schools that are joining the world of academy sponsorship. The government has been driving this agenda, encouraging strong schools to take on underperforming schools, to export their own established strengths and successes, to improve standards in other schools: the self-improving system.

But …

  • There are now approaching 1,400 sponsored academies; they are no longer a special few (the following table shows how the numbers have grown significantly in the last 3 years – over 1,00 have been opened in the last 3 years alone).
Open Sponsored Academies
Academic year of openingNumber openedTotal
Academic year 02/0344
Academic year 03/04812
Academic year 04/05517
Academic year 05/061027
Academic year 06/072047
Academic year 07/083683
Academic year 08/0950133
Academic year 09/1070203
Academic year 10/1169272
Academic year 11/1297369
Academic year 12/13379748
Academic year 13/143851133
Academic year 14/152471375
  • The structured and funded support enjoyed by early academies is no longer available.
  • The sponsoring school has only limited capacity and risks a drop in standards in the mothership as a result of helping in challenging schools.

A recent TES article cited headteachers who say they are being ‘penalised’ by Ofsted for doing what the government wants and helping to turn around struggling schools, who say they are being unfairly treated for doing the government’s bidding, and warn that the policy could deter others from offering extra support.

Ofsted’s official policy is not to take this work into account when grading the quality of leadership during school inspections.

At risk
After an economic downturn, after 5 years of converter academies, after a period of mass expansion in the academies programme and with an expectation that it will be outstanding schools that will pick up the baton and deliver the capacity and expertise needed, sponsored academies are at risk.

We expect and demand the same degree and pace of transformational change, but without the frameworks in place to support and encourage delivery.

If we are to secure a lasting legacy for the academies programme, we need to learn from the early success stories. SSAT’s publication, Early academies – making a difference, tells the story of almost 20 academies and how they achieved great successes. The University of Manchester’s evaluation of the impact of the Academy Support Programme (July 2010) identified the following:

  1. Knowledge transfer – The Academy Support Programme has transferred significant knowledge into academies. An important factor supporting knowledge transfer was the involvement of high quality personnel, including professional consultants, school-based practitioners and credible project officers. Some of these have been provided by SSAT, whilst others have come from sources beyond SSAT. The programme has also been successful in brokering partnerships and support between schools, an approach that is increasingly recognised as the most powerful strategy for school improvement, particularly in challenging contexts.
  2. Developing strategic capacity – The Academy Support Programme had significant impact in a range of areas using relatively limited resources. Academy principals used the programme to engage in a range of activities. The diversity of this activity has provided “quick wins” in the short term and helped to build capacity in the long term. Impact is most evident in the development of structures and processes to promote both staff development and student achievement.
  3. Provision of support for school leaders, particularly principals – The Academy Support Programme comes at a time when principals are personally vulnerable and potentially isolated but tasked with managing complex change in the most challenging contexts, where power relationships within the locality are often unclear or diffuse.

Making it work today
So, can today’s sponsored academies hope to emulate the achievements of the early pioneers, the first academies?

It may well be that they can, but without a supporting structure, the challenge may be the ‘crippling’ effort described by Clive Mathew – the headteacher who worked with his leadership team to secure improvements in his own school and pull another secondary out of special measures within in a year – but whose school’s leadership grade dropped in its last Ofsted report.

SSAT’s role in responding to schools’ needs, in making the most of its national networks, in the brokerage of carefully nuanced support continues to be important to academy leaders and to academy sponsors.Read more about SSAT’s position on school structures, systems and other key policy areas for the new government in Building on Consensus – launched next week on 23 April.

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