Pupils at academy chains being failed by inspection loophole

The Conversation

By Jacqueline Baxter, The Open University

Recent inspections of schools run by academy chains have shown many of these schools to be failing. Yet Ofsted, the schools inspectorate, is still not allowed to regulate the very organisations that are responsible for this.

In a recent sitting of the Education Committee’s inquiry into academies and free schools, its chair, the Conservative MP Graham Stuart, detailed the long list of academy chain failures now occurring with increasing regularity.

Ofsted have said that AET [Academies Enterprise Trust] has low expectations and are leaving schools to founder; that E-ACT provides poor-quality teaching intervention and support and that an overwhelming proportion of pupils in the Kemnal Academy Trust are not receiving a good education.

Since 2012, Ofsted has intensified its focus on the inspection of school governance, insisting that it is integral to the leadership and management function of schools. In spite of this – and the concomitant furore surrounding the state of school governance in the wake of the Trojan Horse extremism affair in Birmingham – the inspectorate still has its hands tied when it comes to inspecting academy chains.

As part of its brief, Ofsted is allowed to inspect individual schools within academy chains but not the trusts that run them. Yet in many cases it is precisely these trusts and their sponsors that are failing the very schools they purport to support.

One area that has proved to be particularly problematic from a regulatory perspective is the lack of effective scrutiny in terms of conflicts of interest within academy chains. This is an area highlighted in a new report by the Institute of Education’s Toby Greany and Jean Scott.

They found that the mechanisms to identify and address conflicts of interest in academy chains are almost non-existent. They outlined a number weaknesses in the system, including that some trust boards are not adhering to national guidance or doing enough to mitigate the risks associated with conflict of interest. They also point out that the skills and capacity of bodies charged with auditing trusts may be weak or insufficient to “get under the skin” of what is going on.

Immune to public scrutiny

It was only a short time ago that the head of Ofsted, Michael Wilshaw called for more stringent inspection of Local Education Authorities following a spate of high-profile school failures of several schools within the same authority. The authorities concerned have been named and shamed for the dereliction of their duties.

Yet organisations at the helm of some of the biggest school chains in the country appear to be accountable to no one. As David Wolfe of law firm Matrix Chambers highlighted during the recent inquiry:

The power is concentrated with the trust and no longer really with local governing bodies unless it is delegated down and then the trusts are not under any great scrutiny. They are not subject to direct observation from Ofsted and they are not subject to the kind of public pressures that come from democratic accountability or a wider public transparency.

Such issues of accountability around chains of schools which expand too quickly are a common feature of the US Charter school system, a system that in many ways mirrors the reform intentions of the academies project. In states in which there are high levels of regulatory accountability such as Massachusetts, charter schools appear to do well, outperforming regular district schools on a number of criteria.

But uncontrolled expansion of charter schools and lack of concomitant accountability has given rise to a number of cases in which schools have been shut down and had their licences revoked.

Governance loophole

Research into school federations in the UK is beginning to unpick the new governance structures that are appearing. Although in its early stages, researchers have stressed the importance of retaining coherence in these multi-level governance structures that mirror so many in the wider not-for-profit sector.

It took some time for Ofsted to bring school leadership and governance into a single judgement, following a long period during which they were considered entirely separately in regulatory terms. Now this is in place, it would make perfect sense to apply it it to academy chains, yet their sponsors and trusts have been conveniently permitted to slip through the net.

This lack of accountability has caused a number of issues. It makes it almost impossible to be able to pinpoint why one or a number of schools in a chain are not performing well.

It also makes it difficult to see how multi-level governance is actually functioning if inspectors are only able to see part of the picture and not the whole. Inspectors look only at individual schools and their performance in isolation, rather than the chain as a whole. It is also almost impossible to evaluate how the strategic direction of the chain is operating through individual schools and evaluate to what extent those schools are working with and through that strategy.

Rudderless in the face of weak leadership

A lack of cohesion in accountability also makes it difficult to see how the goings-on at individual schools relate to overarching principles within the trust. This includes how pupil premium money is spent on children who qualify for it, or the direction of standards for teaching and learning. As trusts continue to grow, it becomes even more pressing to ensure governing trusts are accountable in financial and operational terms.

As researchers in the US point out, the challenges of retaining quality during periods of intensive growth are substantial. It’s not difficult to see how schools in academy chains can be left rudderless and lacking strategic and operational direction and prey to conflicts of interest.

It appears to be somewhat paradoxical that we pay £143m for an inspection system that is prevented from inspecting some of the key organisations behind so many schools in England, particularly in light of the type of failures that have come to light recently. According to the Department for Education, there are currently 1,226 open sponsored academies in the 2014-15 academic year.

Unless these failures are investigated in a holistic way that departs substantially from the fractured and dislocated manner of current regulatory practice, then it is difficult to see how errors can be pinpointed and addressed in the future.

The Conversation

Jacqueline Baxter does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
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School governors how we got here and where we go from here

The recent crisis in English Education, nicknamed Trojangate by bloggers and tweeters,(Phipps, 2014), has brought to light some of the acute issues facing school governance in England today. The affair prompted by a letter which is now thought to be a hoax, has prompted an unprecedented level of school inspections, carried out to investigate the alleged infiltration of hard line Muslim ideology into the curriculum of 25 Birmingham Schools an infiltration which was alleged to have taken place largely due to mismanagement of school governors. As a result, five of the schools were placed in special measures, the lowest school inspection category available, with a further nine schools re-categorised to ‘requires improvement’. The scandal, amongst other factors has brought to light issues with the whole issue of school governor operations and their role in overseeing in what is essentially a new education system in England (Baxter, 2014a).

Although The Trojan Horse Affair has placed school governance firmly in the eye of the media, the whole area has been under scrutiny for some time now. Recent parliamentary enquiries, reports by the English Inspectorate of Education, Ofsted (The Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills), have all questioned how a system which has grown organically over the past hundred years, is to be monitored and governed given the many and varied changes to English school structures that began under New Labour and have continued to gain pace under the present Coalition Government from 2010 (Ofsted, 2011; Parliament, 2013b, 2013c).
In order to understand what the current challenges are, it is important to understand how the system of education governance has evolved. Particularly as it is a system which is in many ways unique to England, evolving as it has in response to both educational and political imperatives that are particular to that country (Lawton, 1978; Sallis, 1988b)
School governance actually dates back some 600 years, and were first introduced to ensure financial probity as Joan Sallis describes here:
They [governors] ‘ were charged to scrutinise teaching and progress in school of the scholars and the quality of the food provided for the same…and shall correct or reform anything needing correction or reform.’(Sallis, 1988b:100)
Two major enquiries: The Clarendon Commission in 1861 and the Taunton Commission in 1864, centring on public schools and grammar schools respectively uncovered that many of these schools had drifted from their original purposes and proposed that a new form of accountability be created: the governing body. The proposals were formalised in the form of two Acts, the Public Schools Act and the Endowed Schools Act (Parliament, 1868a, 1868b). Of these reports The Clarendon report went furthest in describing the duties of governing body and head teacher. Outlining the way in which the curriculum was structured the report pointed to the way in which governors were expected to influence:
‘What should be taught, and what importance should be given to each subject are therefore questions for the Governing Body; how to teach is a question for the head master.(Commission, 1864)
The shape and format of governing bodies continued to evolve until the 1944 Education Act laid down the partnership between central and local government and set out in some detail, the roles and responsibilities of governors and the division of responsibilities between the LEA and individual school bodies (Parliament, 1944). The act changed the shape and form of governing boards, increasing their powers and specifically articulating their modus operandi in sections 17 -21. But although the 1944 act demanded that all schools should possess a governing body, in terms of governing schools the act was seen by some to lack substance, as Sallis outlines,
‘The Act’s provisions on school governance were an attempt to graft firmly onto the state system of education a model which has been devised for the public schools and in which the Victorian figure of the ‘local worthy’ loomed large.[…] perhaps was inevitable that managers and governors either became meaningless appendages of the schools or mere tools of providing authority.’(Sallis; 1988:110).
After that the most substantial changes in the form and shape of school governance emerged during the early sixties. Prompted by the changing system of education the parental element of school governing gained pace, spurred on by the rise of parent groups .The National Association of Managers and Governors established in 1970 was established in order to reform outdated systems of school governance established by the 1944 Act. But the pace of change would have been far slower had it not been for the radical and transformative work done in the City of Sheffield in the late sixties. This was largely due to innovative Labour policy initiatives prompted by an extended period out of office. When Labour returned to power in 1970 it returned with a pledge to,
‘Work for a more participatory style of local democracy, with encouragements to tenant’s associations, consultation with these and other non-political support groups and community based individual governing boards for all schools.’ (Sallis:114).
Considerable changes in Sheffield resulted in a far larger more participatory articulation of school governance. Numbers of governors rose dramatically and the impact of the reforms gave rise to the Taylor Inquiry, which instigated the Taylor Report (1977), arguably one of the most influential reforms on school governance since the 1944 Act .
It was felt that although the 1944 Act had articulated certain understandings of governance, that it did not go far enough and had become outdated. The Taylor Report recommended that five main interests should be represented on governing bodies: the LEA, parents, teachers, older pupils and the local community. In addition it recommended that all LEAs provide training and development for governors. The report was well received, not least due to the fact that in sentiment it reflected the far greater focus on participation in education in terms of home support for children and a greater role for the community in supporting local schools. The report focused on the local element of governance in a number of ways, but one of the principal elements of this was the need for. ‘Governors not to be accountable to their transient clientele, but rather act as guardians of the school’s distinctive place in the local system and as participants of a healthy local system’ (Ibid:10). The report was shortly followed by The Education Act 1980 which allowed any governor to stand for Chair (not just LEA governors). The 1986 Education Act (NCC, 2001) concentrated its efforts on partnership between central and local government ensuring the end of the dominance of governing bodies by LEA representatives, strengthening the role of governors reporting to parents and highlighting the role of individual schools. Although this Act seems almost to have been forgotten in the wake of the 1988 Act; for governors it was an important one in terms of highlighting their role in linking school with community: a facet all but negated in the later act. The return of the Conservative Party to power in 1987 combined with the teachers dispute which took place from 1985 -6 , created a great deal of dissatisfaction with the perceived power of the teaching profession, creating a need to control and regulate to a far greater extent than previously.
Following the 1988 Education Reform Act (Parliament., 1988) there was increasing emphasis on school self-management. The principal impact of The Act on governance was the introduction of Local Management of Schools (LMS). This effectively devolved all responsibility for the budget and the management of school staff into the hands of governors. Some governing bodies opted to take this further, by adopting Grant Maintained status becoming the employers of staff with an extended decision making function. This resulted in a far greater impetus for schools to engage governors from the business community an element described in Thody’s 1994 study on school governors which describes, ‘An advice book for business community governors that, ‘schools need to run like companies with the governing bodies being boards of directors and the headteachers the managing directors (Thody, 1994:22).
The three challenges of a changing system

Today’s school governor is faced with a number of issues, not least of these, the ways in which the education landscape has changed and evolved over the past 20 years. The Academies project, a flagship policy instigated by the New Labour Government under Tony Blair was set up to improve failing schools by offering them financial and a certain degree of curricular independence (Ball, 2009). In 2010 the project was intensified and widened by the Academies Act 2010 (Parliament, 2010).Under the new regulations, outstanding schools too could opt for academy conversion. Since the Conservative Liberal Coalition Government came to power, the Act has been used to progress a neo-liberal belief in the efficiency of the market by using the powers of Ofsted and The Secretary of State for Education- Michael Gove to force academisation on failing schools (Gorard, 2009).Governors in these schools- over 4000 at the last count (DFE, 2014). Within these schools there is currently no middle tier of accountability between volunteer school governors and Gove. The second key issue facing governors is the increasing incursion of groups of schools, either chains or federations which operate very different governance structures to single schools. In some cases governors may be responsible for a number of schools, supported by local governing groups who have consultative but no decision making powers- this has raised questions over what it really means to be a school governor (see for example Baxter & Wise, 2013; Chapman et al 2010). The third major challenge for school governance arises from the increased regulatory emphasis placed upon it by the English School Inspectorate, Ofsted (The Office for Standards in Education, children, families and skills).

School governing grew organically but in the government’s haste to create a new education system it seems to have been assumed that the governance system could be cut and pasted on without any problems. Trojan Horse if anything positive has come out of it, has proved that this is clearly not the case.

For further information see the full article at :
https://www.academia.edu/7701386/School_Governor_regulation_in_Englands_changing_education_landscape_Is_it_a_case_of_MADSchool_Governor_regulation_in_Englands_changing_education_landscape_Is_it_a_case_of_MAD

What have education systems in the UK ever done for social mobility?

What have education systems in the UK ever done for social mobility?

The post-war period  marked the beginning of an era during which it was hoped that education systems in the UK could be re-designed in order to ensure that no individual’s background would be a barrier to opportunity: that rigid pre-war class divisions could finally be put aside in order to create a more equal society, and the kind of social mobility that had erstwhile seemed unattainable. But the halcyon optimism of the post war period has faded from memory, to be replaced by what appears to be a yawning chasm between the attainment of children from poor homes and those from more privileged backgrounds. (Clifton & Cook, 2012).

International comparators such as the OECD’s PISA report (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development Programme for International Student Assessment); have revealed that although an attainment gap exists in most OECD member countries, the English case is particularly concerning. In England pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds do less well than their peers (Mortimore & Whitty, 2000). With 77% of the between school differences in student performance linked to socio economic background, pupils in England appear considerably disadvantaged compared to their counterparts in the rest of Europe (OECD average 55%) (OECD, 2010(a)). A report by the same organisation revealed this gap to be almost three times larger in England than in other OECD countries (OECD, 2006; Schütz, Ursprung, & Wößmann, 2008). This data combined with recent damning reports in the English press , and a new Chief Inspector (Sir Michael Wilshaw) who believes that too many children in England are ‘being failed, after spending their entire primary or secondary education in schools rated no better than ‘satisfactory’ (Paton, 2012), place increasing levels of pressure upon Ofsted (The Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills), to ‘raise the bar’  and create an inspection system which transfers that increasing pressure onto schools, demanding that they raise standards and ensure that England’s international education ranking is improved.

But the problem is not confined purely to England: a report commissioned in 2007 into Scottish education revealed that although Scotland has one of the most equitable school systems among OECD countries, there is no room for complacency and in spite of a number of policy innovations aimed at closing the attainment gap, a recent report from the London School of Economics revealed the gap to be as wide as ever: there is still much to be done as their blog reports:

Furthermore, our findings show deep levels of inequality in Scotland, particularly between pupils from different socioeconomic groups. For example, the PISA data for maths in Scotland in 2009 show that the difference between the most advantaged quarter of young people and the least advantaged quarter is 93 points. The top quarter achieved 549 points, which is on a par with the average score in Hong Kong (which was placed third in the OECD for maths that year), while the bottom quarter achieved only 456 points, on a par with Turkey (which was placed 44th). Source –http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/politicsandpolicy/archives/35369.

Wales too gives cause for concern as this recent article illustrates : http://www.theguardian.com/education/2013/oct/08/oecd-adult-literacy-numeracy-uk-poverty-inequality

But a substantial body of research for example that carried out by Rasbash et al (Rabash, Leckie, Pillinger, & Jenkins, 2010), indicates that only 20% of variability in a pupil’s achievement is attributable to school quality and the rest is down to pupil-level factors (family influence, neighbourhood etc.) : factors that are often sidelined in international reports compiled from statistical data.

Attempts to bridge the gap have resulted in a plethora of  policy development  in education; development which many teaching professionals perceive to be ‘innovation overload’: too many policies that are not based on cumulative research within the sector, but perceived by many to be driven by the political whims of successive governments. As David Hopkins writes in his recent paper, ‘Exploding the myths of school reform,’:

‘the failure of so many educational reform efforts to impact on the learning and performance of students, is due to misguided action based on a number of myths associated with school reform that remain prevalent in education to the present day.’ (pp:304)

So what has the UK School system ever done for social mobility? 

Join the debate on Facebook: November 1st: Friday Thinkers on the Social Science Website.

https://www.facebook.com/theopenuniversity.socialscience

References.

 

Clifton, J., & Cook, W. (2012). A Long Division: closing the attainment gap in Engand’s Secondary Schools London: IPPR and Save the Children

Hopkins, D. (2013). Exploding the myths of school reform. School Leadership and Management, 33 (4), 304-321.

Mortimore, P., & Whitty, G. (2000). Can School Improvement Overcome the Effects of Disadvantage. London: Routledge.

OECD. (2010(a)). PISA 2009 Results. What students know and can do. In OECD (Ed.). Paris.

Paton, G. (2012). Ofsted: one million children stuck in coasting schools, The Telegraph.

Rabash, J., Leckie, G., Pillinger, R., & Jenkins, J. (2010). ‘Children’s educational progress: partitioning family, school and area effects’. Journal of the Royal Statistical Society, 173(3), 657-652.