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.
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.