In the light of the announcement that E-ACT is ‘handing back’ 10 of its academies, there are four important challenges for the DfE and government ministers.
First, will the process for allocating the new schools to new sponsors be open and transparent? The pupils, families and staff in those academies deserve to have the best educational support. Some of the problems with over-rapid expansion of academy chains occurred because the Department appeared to acquiesce in awarding academies to favoured sponsors. The process for the 10 E-ACT academies finding a new home needs to be swift but also robust and open – with a premium on the capacity of sponsors being able to make a real difference to the schools.
Second, what judgement has been made of the longer-term capacity of E-ACT to become an effective academy sponsor. Do the changes leave the chain in a better shape – in terms of the geographical configuration of their academies, their central capacity, their financial health and their school improvement model – to be a more effective chain? Or has E-ACT just lost the schools with which they were struggling the most with the chain still lacking coherence and long-term viability?
Third, in the light of this action in respect E-ACT (and, potentially, AET?) what possible reason is there for not publishing statistics on the performance of academy chains? The government has made much of all the schools data that it has put in the public domain but fails to publish (even though it collates and analyses) the progress and value added by academy chains.
Fourth, will the DfE manage to avoid taking and applying the wrong lessons from the E-ACT experience to other chains? Some of the academies being targeted by the DfE have been academies for a good while and intervention in these cases may well be justified. However, if the Department is too zealous in expecting dramatic improvement there is a risk that it will a) put sponsors off applying to take on some of the toughest schools and b) lead to action action being focused on short term gains rather at the expense of the deeper seated reforms that these schools often need. There needs to be at least a three to five year trajectory for improvement discussed and agreed with sponsors when they take on a school. And that trajectory should be made public. The criteria for success and the rate of progress to be expected would then be open for all to see.
However, despite these challenges the problems of E-ACT do not sound the death-knell of academy chains. Chains founded round strong schools with clear geographical coherence, deploying and developing high calibre leaders and practising a shared approach to improving teaching and learning, still represent a good way for the school system to develop. The task is to ensure all chains are developing and working to these sound principles.