This week Toyota had to issue yet another recall – this time for 1.9 million Prius vehicles. Quite a blow for the company that has the concept of Kaizen – continuous improvement – at the heart of is approach to design and manufacture. Analysts say that Toyota’s problems date back to a decade or so ago when it decided to become the world’s biggest car maker in the world. The company achieved its aim but at the price of running into quality issues.

The successes and travails of Toyota are a long way from the development of academy chains – but there are some parallels.  Those chains that have gone for growth and expanded the most rapidly have been the ones to struggle. The quantity of academies has seemingly trumped the quality of school improvement. In three years some chains went from having ten or a dozen academies in their chain to having 30, 40 or, in one case 70. Not surprisingly they have run into problems. The Department for Education (DfE) is issuing edicts telling chains they have to up their game (particularly in those academies where the chain has failed to make an impact), while Ofsted is inspecting chains with the highest concentration of underperforming academies.

A predictable and predicted scenario

What makes the situation worse is that the problems were not only predictable but were predicted. In the 2012 report on academy chains commissioned by the National College, that I and a group of colleagues from Isos researched, we very clearly identified both the advantages and the risks of academy expansion (see table below).

The advantages of expanding academy chains The risks from expanding academy chains
  • Extends the chain’s impact in terms of raising standards of education for more young people
  • Creates a broader base for developing leaders
  • Increases the scope for sharing learning, subject specialisms, school improvement expertise and CPD
  • Provides more opportunities for staff deployment and promotion within the chain
  • Increases economies of scale in the running of central services and provides greater purchasing power
  • Opens up new opportunities to build new primary/secondary curriculum and transition model
  • Enables central costs to be shared across a larger number of schools
  • Provides a bigger platform for supporting innovation
  • Provides a stronger brand to attract parents and applications for admission
  • Damage to the reputation of the chain as one of the (new) academies gets into difficulties or improvement proves very intractable
  • Too many new schools are taken on at one time and there is insufficient leadership capacity to manage the challenge
  • The chain reacts to having more academies by becoming more bureaucratic and a more rules-based organization
  • Diseconomies of scale start to emerge – for example, communication becomes much harder and it is difficult to keep everyone informed and involved across all the academies in the chain
  • The core infrastructure (central services) becomes overstretched
  • Existing schools in the chain start to slip back as energies are focused on new joiners
  • The growth in the number of academies makes the chain impersonal, eg key senior and middle leaders and staff don’t really know each other

Source: Hill et al, (2012), The growth of academy chains: implications for leaders and leadership, National College for School Leadership

Lessons from US Charter school chains

We also highlighted the experience of Chartered Management Organisations (CMOs – the equivalent of academy chains in the United States) that were being much more cautious in their growth strategies. In the US CMOs considered that opening three to five new schools a year constituted aggressive growth. On average, CMOs with four or more schools were opening no more than one new school a year for the first six years. After seven years of operation, the average pace picked up to approximately two new schools a year. After 10 years they had on average 13 schools in their chain. The rate of growth was slower for smaller CMO chains.

Some academy chains in England – the Cabot Learning Federation and the Outwood academies – have broadly followed that path. Similarly Harris and ARK, although they have grown to having 27 academies each, have done so over a decade or more.

Unregulated growth

The DfE largely ignored the National College report because it was more concerned with expanding the number of sponsored academies. For  nearly three years years after it came to power the government continued to throw schools at the largest sponsors with little assessment of a chain’s capacity to take on schools with demanding and entrenched school improvement challenges. In addition the ‘award’ of schools to chains was, to say the least, an opaque process. One of the common complaints we heard during research for our 2102 study was from chains committed to making a fundamental difference to the schools they took on. They were aggrieved: they felt that they were being penalized when presenting comprehensive plans for dealing with the root cause of a school’s weakness. Governors and local authorities were opting for softer options from chains that were flavor of the month and the DfE was acquiescing in the process.

The most mature chains were wise and confident enough to grow at their own pace and in accordance with their own strategy. They took active steps to manage the risks – and were prepared to say ‘No’ to the Departmental brokers if they felt that a particular academy was not right for their chain.

The chains that went for an aggressive expansion strategy also share the blame for the problems they are now wrestling with. They ignored, as did Michael Gove, the need to create or use geographical clusters as the basis of their expansion. They failed to practise thorough due diligence in terms of bottoming the scale of the liability and challenge of the schools they were taking over.

A change of tack

The  appointment of Lord Nash as academies ministers and the introduction of new advisers in the DfE brought a change of tack. Interestingly the application of lessons from the corporate sector has been at the root of their revised approach. Restrictions have been placed on the further growth of some chains. There is now a much thorough assessment of a chain’s resources and capacity to improve a school before it is allowed to acquire it. There is a much greater emphasis on chains having geographical coherence and strong governance. Grants have been provided to small chains to help them build up their capacity.

Another sensible policy shift has seen the encouragement of a whole plethora of new sponsors – particularly amongst outstanding schools. In other words growing chains through having more of them – rather than creating mega chains. In January 2014 the DfE’s approved academy sponsor list had 558 names on it – most of them schools. Whether the Department is being as rigorous as it should be in assessing and approving sponsors is another matter.

Top tips

Many of these fledgling chains are now looking to grow for the reasons set out in the chart above. But as they seek to do so we need to avoid a repeat of the problems that some of their big brothers have encountered. Here are my top tips for measured academy growth:

  • Be clear about the vision and the core and values of the chain
  • Develop a medium-term business strategy that balances the desire to achieve economy of scale with the capacity to absorb schools into the chain
  • Ensure there is a clear understanding of how to undertake school improvement that is shared across the chain
  • Prioritise the development of teaching and learning across academies in the chain and empower staff and students to lead this – in other words attend to what Jim Collins calls ‘the primary flywheel’ of the chain’s core business
  • Maintain a clear geographical focus and work through clusters of academies of no more than four or five overseen by an executive leader
  • Deploy emerging and senior leaders (and other staff with specific expertise) across academies in order to grow a broad leadership talent pool
  • Recruit high calibre governors – both as directors/trustees of the chain and on local governing bodies
  • Encourage good and outstanding schools that share the chain’s values to join in order to boost the critical mass of school improvement expertise within the chain
  • Track performance closely and intervene early where there are problems
  • Agree the relationship between the corporate centre of the chain and individual academies on the operation of policies and the delivery of  back office functions, systems and services
  • Conduct a thorough due diligence exercise before sponsoring or taking on another school
  • Consider appointing an organisational coach to help the chain mature
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