Successive governments have promoted academy sponsorship as a way to improve the educational achievement of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds. As the academies programme has developed, policymakers have increasingly seen academy chains, and especially multi-academy trusts (MATs) as the best way of working to improve the performance of previously struggling schools and the educational outcomes of their often disadvantaged pupils. While the DfE now reports annually on MAT performance, a welcome development, there has been less attention to outcomes for disadvantaged pupils, the focus of the initial establishment of the sponsored academies programme.
The Chain Effects annual reports address this gap, and remain the only analysis of the effectiveness of this policy strategy in impacting positively on the attainment of disadvantaged young people. This fourth report, written by Merryn Hutchings and Becky Francis, is based on 2016 exam results. As previously, the main focus is on sponsored secondary academies. This year for the first time we also consider outcomes for disadvantaged pupils in converter and primary academies.
- The secondary sponsored academies in this analysis have lower inspection grades than the national figures for all secondary schools and academies (‘mainstream schools’). Four in ten of the academies in the analysis group (which have all been sponsored academies for at least three years) are not yet regarded as Good by Ofsted. The academies in our analysis group are more likely than mainstream schools to be below the floor standard, and one in five of them met the ‘coasting school’ definition in three successive years.
- There continues to be very significant variation in outcomes for disadvantaged pupils, both between and within chains. This year disadvantaged pupils in ten out of 48 chains had attainment above the national average for disadvantaged pupils in all mainstream schools (maintained and academies), including four chains which were substantially above that average. However, 29 of the 48 had attainment below the mainstream average. While attainment was often poor, improvement in attainment between 2014 and 2016 was better than the mainstream average in half the chains. Of particular concern are the ten chains in which both attainment and improvement were below the mainstream averages.
- Those chains that were most successful with disadvantaged pupils also tended to be successful with their more affluent pupils, while less successful chains tended to have poor results for both groups.
- Academy chains do better with low attainers than with high attainers on average. Key Stage 4 pupils with high prior attainment – those who were above Level 4 at Key Stage 2 –make less progress in sponsored academies than they do in other types of school. This is also the case among disadvantaged pupils; disadvantaged pupils with high prior attainment make less progress in sponsored academies, including those in the analysis group. In contrast, disadvantaged pupils with low prior attainment progressed better in analysis group chains than their counterparts in other types of schools.
- Chains have responded in different ways to the new accountability measures, with some prioritising entry in all English Baccalaureate (EBacc) subjects, while others have focused on achieving good Attainment 8 and Progress 8 results without filling all the EBacc slots. This can reflect not entering pupils for languages.
- Longitudinal analysis over four years shows that the proportion of chains in which disadvantaged pupils perform above the mainstream average has fallen between 2013 and 2016. There has been relatively little change in the ranking of chains; some have consistently done well and others have underperformed. However, a minority have steadily improved their performance, and it would seem vital for the Office of the National Schools Commissioner to explore how this has been achieved, and share effective practice.
- This year, for the first time, outcomes for secondary converter academies in the chains in our analysis group are included. Just over a fifth of the chains had two or more converters that had been in the chain for three years. These academies generally had higher percentages of disadvantaged and of low-attaining pupils than the average for all converter academies. In most chains, attainment for disadvantaged and low-attaining pupils was similar in converter and sponsored academies. However, in sponsored academies, disadvantaged pupils with low prior attainment made better progress in sponsored academies, while those with high prior attainment made better progress in converters.
- Where chains were included in both the Key Stage 4 and Key Stage 2 analysis groups, we are able to compare their success in the two age groups. Some chains were successful with disadvantaged pupils in both age groups. However, others appeared much more successful in one age group or the other.
1. Regional Schools Commissioners (RSCs) must act more firmly with chains that do not deliver improvement over time, in order to ensure that pupils’ life chances are being supported rather than harmed.
2. To this end, the government must recognise the challenge of limited capacity in the system and allow RSCs to draw on all providers with good track records of successful public education delivery, including, where appropriate, successful Local Authorities.
3. The Government, along with the National and Regional Schools Commissioners should do more to create mechanisms to ensure the spread of good practice from the best academy chains to the rest. Suggestions include:
- Creating a taskforce led by the National Schools Commissioner, and comprised of trustees and senior and middle leaders from chains demonstrating significant success, to act as mentors to those sponsors struggling to realise their potential.
- Commissioning robust research on governance, structural arrangements, leadership, and teaching practice in chains that are providing transformational outcomes to their disadvantaged students, to analyse what enables them to succeed.
4. For schools themselves, there is growing evidence on the most effective strategies for school improvement, including the Sutton Trust/Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) Teaching and Learning Toolkit, which focuses on effective strategies to improve results for disadvantaged students. Sponsors and schools should make full use of this body of evidence to improve pupil outcomes.
5. The Government and Ofsted should reiterate the intention of the Pupil Premium to support the attainment of all disadvantaged young people, including those with middle and high attainment, and provide schools with examples of how to do so.
6. To encourage this, the Government should create a high attainment fund specifically to develop, trial and support successful initiatives and resources for high attaining pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds.
7. Government and RSCs must act urgently to highlight the need for support of pupils with high prior attainment within academy chains (including those from disadvantaged backgrounds).
8. The successes of many academy chains in effectively supporting pupils with low prior attainment should be celebrated and used as a resource for the rest of the system: Ofsted and the DfE should explore (or commission research to discover) how this effective support is being achieved, and promote these methods across the system.