Academies and academy chains have grown rapidly under the current government. Understanding their impact has been one of the primary focuses of the Education Select Committee and in that vein the committee held its eighth evidence session on Academies and Free Schools on Wednesday morning. The inquiry has been running for a length of time and SSAT have already submitted written evidence at the committee’s request.
The committee’s focus in this session was primarily on academy chains. The chair, Graham Stuart (also chairing the SSAT Annual Lecture and Debate next Thursday – free to all members), started proceedings by highlighting some of the failings of chains and asking the panel why that was. One clear conclusion, agreed on by all, was that in some instances chains had been allowed to grow too fast. Sir Daniel Moynihan, CEO of the Harris Federation, was particularly strong on this, pointing out that, just as in business, rapid expansion brings severe challenges and that it seemed that some chains had not been ready to meet these.
The general acceptance that some chains weren’t good enough led to the tricky question as to whether schools should be allowed to leave a chain. Interestingly, some on the panel argued that it would be dangerous to allow the best schools to leave chains as they are crucial in helping weaker schools in the same chain to improve. Regardless of this it was accepted after some discussion that there should be some form of mechanism for schools to leave chains and that this could perhaps be linked to the quality of the chain.
There was a great deal more discussion on a raft of interesting points: it was generally agreed that there needed to be some form of inspection of chains, concerns about Trusts that had given money to family businesses or even to their own bottom lines, and about some of the issues with the sponsored academy conversion process. Interestingly though, one theme that kept repeating throughout the morning’s narrative was that of the importance of collaboration. The Bishop of Oxford in particular argued that this was essential for the effective functioning of academy chains as well as schools more generally.
Indeed, it was interesting to note that whilst much of the morning’s discussion was specific to academies, a lot of the challenges discussed were pertinent for all schools (that of improving outcomes for the most disadvantaged students for example). Although we must understand the impacts of academy chains, free schools and the like, we must be careful not to create an artificial divide between these different types of school. If collaboration is ‘the key’ to school improvement, as the Bishop of Oxford argued, then all schools, including academies and academy chains, must work together for the greater good of every student.
N.B. The panel giving evidence consisted of: Rt. Rev John Pritchard, (Bishop of Oxford and Chair of the Church of England’s Board of Education), Sir Daniel Moynihan, (Chief Executive Officer, Harris Federation), David Wolfe (QC, Matrix Chambers) and Vincent McDonnell, (Managing Director of Prospects, representing Prospects Academies Trust).
SSAT will continue to tweet live from all future #edselctte sessions.