Are academies innovative?

Academies are less adventurous than policy-makers might wish, according to new research reported here by Amy Finch.

Students working at desksThree myths pervade current political attitudes towards academy schools. The first is that the surge in academy numbers is matched by a surge in their innovative behaviour. The second is that school autonomy leads to division and fragmentation within the school system. The third is that academies covertly select the highest-attaining pupils in a bid to move up the league tables.

Reform has just published a report, Plan A+ 2014: The unfinished revolution, which topples these myths. Between June and October 2013, Reform and SSAT conducted the largest survey of academy schools to date. The survey was completed by 654 self-selected schools, of which 180 were sponsored and 474 had converted to academy status. This is a fifth of the 3,362 academies open by the end of October 2013. The academies surveyed were representative of the whole academy population at the time in terms of their type and age, with a slight skew towards secondary schools and towards those with over 1,000 pupils. Free text responses revealed a full range of attitudes towards academisation.

We found that financial and educational autonomy were the two main motivations for conversion to academy status among the survey respondents. In light of this, our finding that schools are not using these freedoms to a greater extent might come as a surprise. Only 19 per cent report changing or planning to change the school day, and only 33 per cent report changing or planning to change staff terms and conditions. The freedom most commonly used among our respondents was to set teacher pay. However, this freedom has in any case already been extended to all state schools.

One possible explanation for this slow take-up of new freedoms is that national frameworks may prevent academies from making full use of them. The school accountability system, particularly performance measurement at Key Stages 2 and 4, largely determines the content of school curricula. In addition, the existence of national terms and conditions for teachers in state-maintained schools may make it culturally difficult for academies to use their freedom in this area.

These results also show that giving schools greater autonomy has not fragmented the education system, in the opinion of our respondents. Relationships with local schools have improved for 26 per cent of the academies surveyed and worsened for only 7 per cent. Relations with community groups have improved substantially, with 28 per cent reporting improved relations and only 1 per cent reporting that they had worsened.

Further to this, academies report that they are working with other local authority schools to raise standards. 50 per cent of all academies surveyed and 58 per cent of converter academies say they are supporting a vulnerable neighbouring school. According to the survey findings, academies are more likely to offer this support over time. The academies that opened in 2011 are almost twice as likely to support a vulnerable school as those that opened in 2013.

Finally, critics may be reassured by a lack of evidence for covert pupil selection among the academies surveyed. While some academies report a change in the ability profile of their intake, there is no evidence that it has improved systematically. Some have suggested that academies change their admissions policy to select the highest-attaining pupils. This survey does not support that hypothesis. Those that change their admissions policy are no more likely to report a changed ability profile than those that do not change their policy.

These findings show that academies are neither innovating radically themselves, nor drastically fragmenting the schools system. Our report suggests that the extension of school autonomy goes hand-in-hand with local collaboration. Relaxing regulatory constraints on all schools may very well do that. The challenge is to enable academies to take full advantage of their freedoms.

Amy Finch is a researcher at Reform, where she works on public sector reform. She was previously a parliamentary researcher to a Liberal Democrat MP and has completed a Masters in Public Policy at King’s College London.

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