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.
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.