Government plans to turn every English school into an academy have been criticised by Conservative councillors and MPs. But how do the benefits and disadvantages look inside an academy school?
Monday morning, and 10 and 11-year-olds at George Betts Academy in Smethwick are learning about perseverance. Helen, their young, energetic teacher, encourages them to talk about their own successes and failures.
One girl confesses she nearly gave up trying to make chapatis because she could not get it right and a boy talks about frustration with a video game. They all seem confident, engaged.
One pupil calls out, “Have you ever made a mistake Miss?” Helen cheerfully acknowledges, “I have made so many mistakes. As you know I’m a new teacher, and I have to check everything…” She glances across at her more experienced colleague, who is working as her assistant, quietly supporting her throughout the lesson.
Across the country, especially in areas of deprivation like Smethwick, schools are struggling to recruit new teachers. At George Betts, most pupils come from poorer families and most do not speak English at home. Allan Shephard, the school’s executive principal says it is not easy, what helps is the training and intensive support his school can offer, plus career development and promotion for new recruits. Helen is “brilliant” he says, a graduate of the Teach First programme.
The support for teachers and heads comes through the Elliot Foundation, a multi academy trust which the school joined in 2013.
It currently has 22 primary schools in London, East Anglia and the West Midlands. It supports individual schools, and encourages them to help each other. So far, it has a good track record.
George Betts for instance, has risen from the bottom of the local Sandwell league table to nearly the top, in just three years.
If all schools become academies, Multi Academy Trusts or MATS will be an essential part of the education system. Primary schools are too small to be financially self sufficient, that is why relatively few have so far become academies: 2,440 out of 16,766 have converted. More than half of secondary schools have this status.
MATS take on the “back office” role played by local authorities, looking after financial and legal compliance for instance. Supporters of academisation say that MATS are better placed than local authorities to help schools raise standards too, however many local authorities do still provide this help.
The Chief Executive of the Elliot Foundation, Hugh Greenway, says only larger MATS will be able to properly support schools. He believes that unless a MAT has at least 5,000 pupils across its schools, it will be very hard for it to improve teaching and learning. He believes smaller MATS will be dependent on volunteers and charity donations.
He says, “If you think of the average primary school as being a bit like a corner shop, it relies on a system outside itself, it buys its goods from the cash and carry, it has a supply chain that it depends upon, whereas the larger people in that industry, Sainsburys and so on, do it themselves.”
He worries that, “If we move to an academy world where there are no large chains … Then fragmentation has gone too far.”
In recent weeks, many have raised concerns about oversight of MATS. Last month Sir Michael sent the Department for Education a formal note, warning about problems in seven major academy chains.
There are over 800 chains in England: a number that is bound to grow if all schools become academies. They are currently overseen by the eight Regional Schools Commissioners and the Dfe.
Hugh Greenway fears the commissioners could be overwhelmed as the numbers expand, and he believes Ofsted should have new powers to inspect and judge MATS.
Currently Ofsted can inspect batches of schools belonging to a chain, but there are no performance tables. Hugh Greenway believes this is essential, to inform operators and parents alike.
Just a rejig?
He says: “When you’re trying to improve outcomes for children, you have to make decisions about where you’re trying to spend your time. If we knew we were in champions league position then we can perhaps take more risks, be more innovative, look for the next big idea.”
On the other hand, if the MAT was in “relegation” territory, they would know to concentrate on the core work of schools.
Jonathan Simons, Head of Education at the right wing think tank Policy Exchange, was the first to call for all schools to become academies.
He points out the recent government White Paper on Academies said oversight should be improved, and agrees some form of inspection would be logical. However, he says “whether it’s Ofsted in its current form…or whether it’s a rejigging of the way Ofsted works…is not clear”.
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