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Primary Education News
News Is the academies programme working?
Problems with the academies programme raise profound questions about its effectiveness, equity and sustainability
Confusion over who is responsible for what, lack of serious evaluation, inadequate local and national accountability, perverse incentives, opaque and inefficient funding processes and poor cost control: those are just some of the weaknesses in the system for managing the expansion of the academies programme highlighted by the cross-party Public Accounts Committee in their report issued last month.
Because the programme grew so quickly it cost much more than anticipated, by about £1bn, which had to be met from the Department for Education's existing budgets. The result was that money had to be diverted from other objectives – including £95m that had originally been earmarked for improving underperforming schools. Many of the converter academies were already high-performing and the committee says that allocating this amount to them instead "may have been at the expense of weaker non-academy schools which could potentially have benefitted from it more".
The committee, whose report is based largely on analysis by the National Audit Office, is nervous about the future, particularly in the light of Michael Gove's plan to halve his department's administrative costs by 2015/16: "We remain sceptical that the Department has sufficient systems and resources to oversee the Programme as it continues to expand, especially given the wider reductions to central resources and headcount which the Department has recently announced".
Commenting on the report, Malcolm Trobe, deputy general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: "ASCL has repeatedly warned that it is impossible for one government department to single-handedly oversee thousands of schools and do it effectively. This is a classic case of not thinking through the implications before rushing into reform.".
The report follows a disturbing assessment by the independent Academies Commission, set up by the Royal Society of Arts, which published its report in January and uncovered major holes in the new framework. In a range of areas – including school admissions, governance, accountability, financial oversight and system improvement – serious gaps were appearing. The academies programme is a vast structural experiment, in scale going far beyond what has been tried in any comparable country, but the emerging evidence raises profound questions about the policy in terms of effectiveness, equity and sustainability.
How could such an extraordinary situation have been allowed to develop? There are a number of interlocking reasons, beginning with a minister in an enormous hurry to embed his vision within the electoral timetable. Then there is the very unbalanced nature of our current governance arrangements. As the former head of Margaret Thatcher's policy unit, Ferdinand Mount, has pointed out in his excellent tract The New Few: Or A Very British Oligarchy, we now have a much more centralised form of government than most comparable countries: local government has been emasculated, political parties and trade unions have withered and parliament has little power to provide a check on the activities of government, except sometimes in a backward-looking way as the Public Accounts Committee is able to do. Even the civil service, satirised in the 1980s TV sitcom Yes Minister for exercising devious control by manipulative means, has become more compliant and deferential to ministerial demands. The system has gone out of kilter.
The dangers are obvious. As Mount says of recent developments: "Diktats were delivered in a capricious but demanding style, half thought through, but ungainsayable. The system became both more centralised and more chaotic." This is the position we have reached over the academies programme as the recent reports have shown.
The lessons are ones that apply at every level of the system, whether in Whitehall or in a school. Grand visions require effective organisation to succeed, and the two should go hand in hand – the organisational work must not be done as an afterthought. Some people see a sharp distinction between leadership and management – between establishing the vision and organising its implementation. That's a recipe for trouble. Many imaginative and promising ideas in education have broken down at the implementation stage. However, committed its champions are to a major change, they should take the time to think through the full implications, as Trobe of the ASCL pointed out in his comments on the committee's report. And it's important not to demonise the sceptics and impugn their motives and competence as their challenges may have something valuable to offer.
These are lessons that government ministers, no less than other educational leaders, should heed if they want their plans to become firmly rooted.
Ron Glatter is emeritus professor of educational administration and management at The Open University.