If the Government’s educational policy is really as unideological and fact-based as ministers make out, then the latest study into the performance of England’s academy schools makes for uncomfortable reading, indicating that the facts do not fit official policy.
Some academy chains are “highly ineffective” at improving the prospects of disadvantaged pupils, according to the Sutton Trust, a charity dedicated to promoting social mobility, a commodity in short supply in contemporary Britain. The trust supplies ample empirical evidence that suggests reform of academies is urgently required to make them, in that other phrase so beloved of politicians, “fit for purpose”.
Forget the vested interests, the unions, the education “Blob’” and a succession of ministers guided apparently only by instinct alone; on this objective assessment, academies are failing at what they are supposed to do. They were designed to provide a ladder of opportunity for children from poor backgrounds who possessed real academic ability, a sort of modernised version of the old grammar schools. The freedoms they were granted from local-authority control and Ofsted inspection were intended to give heads and governors the flexibility to generate academic excellence.
What is the reality? Academy schools that are failing disadvantaged pupils; a crop of so-called Trojan Horse abuses, with allegations that some academies have become incubators for religious extremism; Ofsted unable to suggest improvements or exercise oversight; and, of course, a total absence of democratic accountability. So there is a need to improve academies and stop them becoming a middle-class racket.
There seems no good reason why they should not be placed on the same footing as other publicly funded establishments and be subject to the rigours, such as they are, of Ofsted inspection. Boards of governors should be subject to examination by local authorities and elections to them properly supervised by those authorities. Above all, much more can and should be done to bring them back to their core objective: raising standards, widening opportunity and reversing the recent trend towards slower social mobility and greater inequality.
That, of course, is easier said than done, and many academies, as well as other types of schools, do their best to boost the life chances for poorer pupils. The answer, perhaps, lies less in quotas and targets – though they would provide a structure for measuring performance – than in heads, governors and teachers recognising that there is a problem with social mobility and encouraging the children who they know come from disadvantaged backgrounds to apply and to thrive when they come to school.
If academies cannot reform themselves to promote social ability, then they may be judged to have underperformed in precisely the same way that so many “bog standard” comprehensive schools failed, and England will have walked away from yet another failed educational experiment, with yet another generation of children denied the fruits of a proper education and the best possible start in life.