Conor Ryan on the lessons from the latest edition of Chain Effects published today.

The Government shows no sign of slowing its academies programme. One of Nicky Morgan’s first acts after the election was to launch an assault on ‘coasting schools’ with the expectation that many of them would become academies. Yet it is not at all clear that there is enough capacity in the system to transform all of those schools that are deemed failing or coasting into success stories.

That’s why the second annual Chain Effects report is so important today. In publishing it, we have focused once again on attainment and improvement for disadvantaged pupils. If academies are to succeed, they must be able to do at least as well as schools generally in enabling their poorest students to get good GCSE results.

On the positive side, the report shows that this is happening in around a third of the chains examined. Some, including Ark, City of London and Harris – three chains that have been part of the academies programme almost since the start – are dramatically transforming the prospects of their disadvantaged pupils, with results well above the national average. Others that are clearly making a difference include the Outwood Grange academies in Yorkshire and the Mercers’ academies based on the Thomas Telford model.

Other chains are showing substantial improvements, including the Bristol-based Cabot Learning Federation, the David Ross education trust and the Co-operative academies trust. But many others are middling or worse, and their performance raises important questions about how the programme is run and how it might move in the future.

I speak as someone who was there at the birth of academies. Indeed, the original term City Academy – the urban allusion was soon dropped – was one that I believe I coined in an early discussion with Andrew Adonis, whose idea it was to co-opt Kenneth Baker’s City Technology Colleges to the New Labour project and whose tenacity and attention to detail ensured success for most of the first sponsored academies.

By 2010, there was a target of 400 academies with nearly 300 ready to open. Even that was a tall order. One reason for the success of the earliest academies was that the troubleshooting capacity of the education department and Andrew’s detailed project management, from No.10 initially and later as a minister, ensured that the crises that have affected so many chains recently were addressed quickly.

But it was far easier to do so – and to ensure the smooth opening of new academies – when the numbers created each year were in the tens rather than the hundreds (not to mention all the free schools, UTCs and studio schools now being created too). The focus was on getting it right much more so than getting the numbers up.

After 2010, attention was initially directed at converting successful schools to academies. I supported giving them the right to do so at the time, and still do, but combined with the drive for free schools it created a capacity issue in the department that has never been adequately addressed since. And that’s the real challenge presented by our report today.

As it stands, nearly half of all the sponsored academies we looked at would be defined as ‘coasting’ for 2014 under the current definition (which doesn’t as yet allow for the performance of disadvantaged pupils).  But of more concern must be the thousands of primary schools that will require action once the changes come into effect. If they are to become academies with support from chains or other schools, where is the capacity to achieve this?

That’s why the report urges the Government to expand its pool of school improvement providers beyond academy sponsors, while introducing greater rigour and transparency for all sponsors. Russell Hobby, the general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, argues that the government should put as much effort into building new collaborative trusts and federations first, and perhaps then encourage the academy status, and that seems sensible in a system where fewer than one in six primaries is an academy. Indeed, the right collaboration seems as important as freedoms in the success of sponsored academies.

Our report also argues that new chains should not be allowed to expand until they have a track record of success in bringing about improvement in their existing academies. That too is important. ARK and Harris have around 30 academies each, but have expanded relatively slowly compared with other bigger chains. Such measured expansion has helped ensure their success. But it also highlights the difficulty the DFE faces in growing the numbers of good chains.

Our reports are not the only ones to suggest that the overall ‘academy effect’ is not large: that was a finding of a recent NFER report too. With so many schools now academies that should not be so surprising – the move from exceptionalism to universality had similar effects in specialist schools. But in the stories of those chains and academies that have transformed their less advantaged students’ prospects there are lessons in what can be achieved – with the right mix of leadership, good teaching, proper planning and a clear vision.

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