Should under-performing academies be brought back under Suffolk County Council control?
PUBLISHED: 07:30 23 April 2019 | UPDATED: 09:21 23 April 2019
Calls have been made by education champions in Suffolk to bring poorly performing academies back under council control.
Academies, which are run by trusts either locally or nationally, are funded from central government rather than the local authority, and have greater freedoms over the curriculum, finances and staff pay.
Data published for Suffolk County Council's scrutiny committee in December revealed that 88.6% of local authority maintained schools in the county had an 'outstanding' or 'good' Ofsted rating, compared to 72.2% of academies and free schools.
The data has prompted some education leaders to call for the Department for Education to reverse its stance on handing failing schools over to large national academy trusts, and bring them back in-house.
Graham White, national executive member of the National Education Union for Suffolk, said: “The government keeps repeating the mantra that academies raise standards. The evidence is that this is largely a false statement.
“The worst performing schools in Suffolk are academies. They were schools in some cases that had 'good' or 'requires improvement' as LA schools so have not improved as academies, they have in fact got even worse in Ofsted terms.
“The NEU calls on the government to abandon its failed education policies and return schools to LA control.”
He added: “An analysis of failing academies shows that national sponsored academy chains tend to perform worse than local MATs [multi-academy trusts].”
Mr White pointed to the government's policy of not allowing new LA-maintained schools, coupled with passing poorly performing academies onto another trust, as reasons behind a lack of improvements.
Traditionally, many of the 'good' and 'outstanding' academies had already received one of the top two ratings by the education watchdog before converting to academies, according to the union.
The calls for underperforming academies to return to LA control have been echoed by Suffolk County Council's Labour education spokesman Jack Abbott.
He said: “It seems illogical that academisation is a one-way street, not least because the myth that the conversion of schools into academies invariably leads to higher standards has largely been debunked.
“That is why it is right for Labour to pledge to give local authorities added powers so that they can effectively scrutinise all schools in their area, allowing them to intervene appropriately and, when necessary, bring schools back in-house.
“Bringing struggling academy schools back under local authority control isn't simply ideological – it's pragmatic.
“Where there are serious concerns about a school why wouldn't you have local intervention? Why wouldn't you give local authorities the power to help drive up educational standards?”
Suffolk's data revealed there were five 'inadequate' and 11 'requires improvement' maintained schools out of the 141 rated, compared to 16 'inadequate' and 33 'requires improvement' academies or free schools out of the 176 rated.
Furthermore, 79% of maintained schools which were inspected in the last academic year retained 'good' or 'outstanding ratings' while the equivalent for academies in the county was 65% – meaning a third of academies had declined.
But the Department for Education has defended its policy.
“The facts speak for themselves, with 550,000 children studying in sponsored primary and secondary academies that are now rated 'good' or 'outstanding', which typically replaced underperforming schools,” a spokesman said.
“The latest Key Stage 2 performance data showed that disadvantaged pupils studying in multi-academy trusts performed significantly better than the national average for disadvantaged pupils in writing and maths.
“We continue to monitor academy performance very closely and intervene where necessary. This includes, for example, working with partners including academy trusts, to find a strong sponsor where a school is judged to be 'inadequate' by Ofsted.
“We also continue to work with Suffolk County Council to ensure the best educational outcomes for all pupils.”
However, Clare Flintoff, chief executive of Suffolk-based MAT Asset Education, believes the data does not tell the whole story, and that in many instances trusts were having to pick up the schools failed by the local authority.
“Unfortunately the data is being used to tell an inaccurate story that academies are not as successful as LA schools but this is simply not the case,” she said.
“Small local trusts as well as many, but not all, larger academy chains are turning ex-LA schools around. “Often we are required to pick up schools that have simply been failed by the local authority.
“These schools join the trust and their data becomes our data which impacts on our overall results and reputation.
“Rather than worrying about this, we get on with the job of improving the schools.
“There are fewer and fewer LA schools that are still controlled by the LA and these tend to be the ones that are doing well and can function without much intervention or support – simply comparing their results with the results of academies overall is not useful.
“Calling for schools to be returned to LA control would require a major overhaul of the LA system and huge amounts of money would need to be raised by LAs in order for them to have the ability or expertise to take schools back.
“I agree that schools need stability but more importantly they need to be overseen, monitored and run by educational experts, people who know about school improvement and know the vital importance of a good education for every single child.
“Children only get one chance at their education and we should not be playing any political games – we just need good people to run good schools in every community.”
A spokesman for Suffolk County Council said trusts were held to account by the national or regional schools commissioners where improvements were not driven fast enough.
“The government's academy programme is intended to link strong sponsors with failing schools so that expertise and resources would stimulate and strengthen improvements in a newly formed academy,” the spokesman said.
“Ofsted recognise that a sponsor will need time to embed improvements and time the next inspection to allow for this impact to show. Where improvement is not sustained or fast enough the national or regional schools commissioner will hold the trust to account.
“There is no mechanism for academy schools to return to local authority control.”