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 fifth and final report, written by Merryn Hutchings and Becky Francis, uses 2017 exam results and reviews findings over the five years.
- There continues to be very significant variation in outcomes for disadvantaged pupils, both between and within chains. In 2017, disadvantaged pupils in 12 out of 58 chains had attainment above the national average for disadvantaged pupils in all mainstream schools, including three chains which were substantially above that average. However, 38 of the 58 had attainment below the mainstream average, including 8 which were well below average.
- The five year analysis shows that there has been only limited change in the overall ranking of the chains in the analysis. The same small group of chains consistently outperform the national average for disadvantaged pupils, while another small group of chains remain at the bottom of the table each year, and there is little to suggest that the Regional Schools Commissioners are having any success in bringing about improvement in these chains. A small number of chains have shown consistent year on year improvement in the ranking, demonstrating that change is possible, while some others have fallen or fluctuated.
- Newer academy chains have performed less well than on their first year of inclusion in our study than those already in the study, with almost 8 out of 10 having below average results. This suggests both that it may take more than three years to bring about improvement in an under-performing school, and also that it takes time for a new academy chain to develop effective strategies for improving schools.
- 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.
- The five-year analysis shows that, in comparison to the national pattern, the overall performance of disadvantaged pupils in sponsored academies in our analysis worsened slightly from 2013 to 2016, but is now recovering. This may be because the move to a more academic curriculum has been a major shift in focus for sponsored academies, many of which previously entered their students for a wide range of vocational qualifications. This change in focus has had implications for staffing and resources, and has taken place at a time when schools have suffered from falling budgets.
- In the last two years the sponsored academies in our analysis have performed very much better against the floor standard. The change from a standard based on attainment to one based on pupil progress has clearly been beneficial for this group. The 26 chains that have been consistently part of the analysis had a smaller percentage of schools below the floor standard than was the case nationally. Many of their pupils enter with low attainment, and despite good progress through secondary, do not attain well at GCSE.
- 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.
- The numbers of disadvantaged pupils being entered for EBacc, compared to those achieving this collection of GCSE passes, is a cause for concern in many chains. Research evidence supports the importance of credentials in these subjects for future access to professional routes and careers, yet failure magnifies disadvantage for these pupils, and these factors must be carefully balanced in exam entry.
To maintain the impetus for improvement:
- 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. 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.
- Ofsted should be empowered to undertake formal inspections of academy chains, and to make judgements on their provision, based on clear criteria. This goes significantly further than the summary evaluations currently being developed. We also suggest that the long-term underperformance of some chains may indicate the limited capacity of the present system – including the RSC structure, and availability of high quality sponsorship – to realise necessary change. It may be necessary to re-visit the present unsustainable complexity of the ‘middle tier’, in order to better support holistic system improvement.
- 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. 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. This could include 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.
To support pupil-level attainment:
- Sponsors and schools should make full use of the body of evidence on what works to improve pupil outcomes. 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.
- There should be continued efforts to increase teacher supply in academic subjects where there are currently shortages, and strategies should be devised to ensure that struggling schools are able to recruit subject specialists.
- Research should be commissioned to determine whether or not the increase in the proportion of pupils entering all EBacc subjects is resulting in some pupils failing (gaining less than a standard pass) in multiple subjects. The target of 90% of pupils entering EBacc by 2025 should be reviewed in the light of this evidence. In the meantime, schools should reflect on their subject entry and outcome rates for disadvantaged pupils, and ensure that their practices are serving the best interests of the young people concerned.
- The government should recognise that schools alone cannot solve the challenges of social inequality; especially not as gaps widen for families. There needs to be recognition that schools are increasingly being expected to compensate other gaps in social provision, and that educational improvement and narrowing of gaps is hampered in these circumstances.