Lessons learned: What can the successes – and failures – of the largest sponsor teach us about the academies programme?

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The Independent Online

It was the only academy sponsor to suffer the ignominy of being blacklisted, under former Education Secretary Ed Balls, as ineligible to open any new schools, after three that it ran had poor Ofsted inspections. Now though, the United Learning Trust (ULT), a Christian charity, is very much back in the thick of things as the new coalition Government seeks to give a "rocket boost" to the whole academies programme, and promotes the creation of new, "free" schools run by parents, teachers and faith groups.

The saga of what has happened to the ULT – the biggest academies sponsor so far, with 17 on its books – gives a fascinating insight into why some of the Government's flagship academies have failed, while others have succeeded in giving a lifeline to youngsters who had been battling the odds in struggling inner-city schools.

On the one hand, Ofsted, the education standards watchdog, cited weak leadership as the reason for slating the performance of three of the ULT academies. Balls's department then banned it from opening any others until it had put its house in order.

On the other hand, the 14 other schools it runs can boast success stories – the most spectacular of which is at its first, the Manchester Academy, which serves the notorious, gang-ridden Moss Side area of Manchester and is rated "outstanding" by inspectors. The words of one of its pupils summed it up. "I'm really lucky to be at the academy. I love it here. I feel safe. It's wonderful," he told inspectors. "Safe" is the crucial word in an area that has seen more than its fair share of gun and knife crime. However, performance in exams is improving, too.

The history of the ULT, which previously just ran independent schools, tells us a lot about the success or otherwise of the programme as a whole. Overall statistics show academies improving at twice the national average rate in GCSE exams, with an increase of 11.5 per cent in the number of pupils gaining five A* to C grade passes in the past two years.

Yet there have been some spectacular failures too – witness the Richard Rose Academy in Carlisle (not a ULT school), which brought together two schools that had a history of rivalry between pupils. Just a few months after its opening it required an emergency inspection after serious disciplinary problems – predicted by many teachers locally – arose.

The Education Secretary, Michael Gove, has been suffering a bout of bad publicity for the programme, after it emerged that only new 153 schools had applied to become academies just six weeks after he told MPs that 1,100 had registered for academy status. It could be argued that he needs all the friends he can get to put the show back on the road. Maybe, therefore, it is not surprising that ULT chief executive Sir Ewan Harper, the man who started its academies section, now says that the Trust and ministers seem to be seeing "eye to eye" over the future of the programme: "We have every expectation of being involved in the future of the programme. What's clear is that we see eye to eye on many things with the new Secretary of State."

Teacher unions which are critical of the academies programme are likely to criticise the Trust's renewed involvement with the programme. They had seized on the three failures – at Stockport, Sheffield Springs and Sheffield Parks – as evidence that the programme was not the panacea some believed it was for improving education standards. But Sir Ewan counters with the steady improvements in 14 of its academies since opening.

Looking at the ULT's 17 academies overall, 33 per cent of their pupils obtained five A* to C grades including maths and English last year, compared with just 6 per cent in 2004. The percentage of both English and maths with top-grade passes has nearly doubled in the past four years from 18 per cent to 34 per cent.

The ULT's academies are very much in the spirit of the initial academies programme, serving struggling inner-city areas (apart from one, William Hulme's in Manchester, which had opted in to the state-school system from being a private school). In many cases, the predecessor schools had been written off as failures.

At the Manchester Academy, only 8 per cent of pupils obtained five A* to C grades at GCSE in 2004 when it replaced the existing Ducie High School. By last summer, this figure had risen to 63 per cent. Kathy August, its principal, recalls events at the time when Ducie was earmarked for closure, potentially leaving the entire area without its own community comprehensive. "People were persuaded to come up from London to look very quickly" to see if they would sponsor the school, she said. "They went back very quickly, without taking their cheque books out."

The ULT stayed the course, however, as it was committed to joining the academies programme. Its parent trust, the United Church Schools Trust, had been set up in 1883 to provide a working-class girls with an education that was decent enough to get them professional jobs. However, as time wore on – as with so many charitable trusts – the Trust found that its original remit had disappeared, and it was left with just 10 independent schools to run.

As the millennium approached, it began to think about ways in which it could fulfil its original obligations, but was told by colleagues in independent school circles: "You can cosy up to state schools, but little more." Labour, other private schools told it, was antagonistic to the private sector.

It took a meeting with then Prime Minister Tony Blair's adviser on education – Andrew (later Lord) Adonis – in an office in Downing Street likened to a cupboard by Sir Ewan to persuade the Trust to join the academies movement. The Government was desperate to find sponsors to boost the academies programme outside London. "London money [to sponsor academies] was staying in London and wasn't going out of London," said Sir Ewan. The ULT took the view that if any authority or school wanted it to run an academy it would back the idea.

With hindsight, though, Sir Ewan candidly admits to a mistaken approach that may have been adopted in the early years, causing the three poor Ofsted inspection reports. "It is different in an inner-city school" to a private school, he said. "They can't just be left with a pattern of headship that we inherited from private schools and then developed in inner-city schools. You need to erect scaffolding that can be there to help and support them. They have to [run schools] in a way that understands what happens in deeply disjointed inner-city communities." This is not necessarily the forte of those solely involved with the private sector.

In some ways, that runs contrary to what was the Labour government's view of academies (and to Gove's philosophy). Lord Adonis, when he became Schools Minister, talked of transferring the independent sector's "DNA" to struggling state schools to boost under-performing schools. Gove echoed that inspiration when he addressed the Commons select committee on education last week. The ULT's experience shows that this "DNA" is not in itself enough to make a school work. As a result, Sir Ewan introduced the concept of there being clusters of schools – linking each of its academies with others in their region so that they could provide aid to each other in times of need. It was a formula Labour ultimately adopted nationwide to improve standards.

When the ULT was abruptly told it could not sponsor any new academies until it had cleaned up its act over the failing three, it had to withdraw suddenly from two new academy projects where it was to have had a role, in Northamptonshire and Oxfordshire.

As to what happens now, it looks as though the ULT may provide some of the fuel for the rocket boost planned by Gove, under which all schools ranked as "outstanding" by Ofsted will be allowed to morph into academies. Even in the inspectors' reports on its three failing academies, there were indications of some improvements in standards despite their overall verdicts – so was Sir Ewan happy with Ofsted's judgements? "There's no point complaining about inspections. It's like complaining about the umpire in cricket. If he says you're out, you're out. The less energy you spend on complaining, the better you'll be for batting the next day," he said.

It may be that the ULT's expertise is more in line with helping run the new Swedish-style "free" schools – also to be called academies – rather than the new academies to be created under the coalition Government. After all, the new academies already manage their own affairs outstandingly, so what need do they have for a new administration? Parents wanting to open up new schools, on the other hand, will want the expertise of an efficient education administration to put their plans into practice.

It is also possible that the two frozen academy projects in Northamptonshire and Oxfordshire could be resurrected.

It is very much the case that with a new captain in Michael Gove leading the academies drive, ULT is now ready to take part in the second innings of this initiative.

The future of academies

The saga of the United Learning Trust is like an everyday story of academy folk. It shows that turning a school into one of the new, privately sponsored academies is by no means a guaranteed way of raising standards.

There are good state schools continuing under local authority control in disadvantaged areas, and bad academies. The reverse is also true.

However, I know of one headteacher who successfully turned round a failing school, and saw it removed from education standards watchdog Ofsted's blacklist, only to see it then turned into an academy at a cost of £31m – despite all the work on improvement having already been carried out.

It would be foolish, though, to pretend that academies cannot be successful in raising standards. The majority of those so far established have resulted in improvements.

The point is that it needs more than just the structural change. As Sir Ewan Harper, the chief executive of the ULT, was honest enough to admit, you need independent school "DNA-plus" (sudch as help and support for the head) to be successful – a lesson he learned after academies failed their Ofsted inspections.

The Education Secretary, Michael Gove, has changed the nature of the academies programme since the coalition Government took power.

Now, academies do not have to have sponsors, and schools that are ranked as "outstanding" by Ofsted can automatically transfer to academy status. It is no longer a programme just for struggling inner-city schools.

One of the most welcome parts of his expansion to the academies programme is that each outstanding school should take responsibility for helping a less flourishing neighbour.

That is the kind of "DNA-plus" measure that we need in order to improve the fortunes of struggling schools.

Richard Garner