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Schools: Academies

Volume 752: debated on Tuesday 4 March 2014


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government, following the decision to remove 10 academies from the E-ACT Academy chain, what action they are taking to ensure that other chains are managing schools satisfactorily.

My Lords, within the Department for Education we have a very tough process of performance management for academy chains. The vast majority are sponsored academies—that is, schools which have in most cases previously been allowed to languish in failure for years. Sponsored academies are now improving at double the rate of local authority-maintained schools. In the small number of cases where an academy is not performing well, we hold the trust to account and challenge it to take decisive action. We have a zero-tolerance approach to failure. Since 2011, we have issued 41 pre-warning notices to underperforming academies and these have proved highly effective.

My Lords, the question here is not individual academies but chains that have been allowed to take over very large numbers of schools. In fact, it is reported that E-ACT, the subject of my Question, has now lost control of 10 of its 34 schools—a third—after damning Ofsted inspections of those schools. Over the weekend, we heard that another big chain has claimed £1 million for so-called ghost pupils. Has not the Secretary of State been reckless in allowing big business to take over such large numbers of our schools without any continuing oversight of its ability to do so? Will he now agree with us, with Ofsted and apparently also with his Schools Minister, David Laws, that to protect the interests of children, parents and teachers, Ofsted should be allowed to inspect not just the schools but these very big sponsoring chains?

E-ACT was undoubtedly overambitious. It took on a lot of schools which were failing and in very challenging situations. Personally, I think that big business being involved in the academy programme is an excellent idea, and it was of course the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, who introduced this. As I said, this programme, which we are extending, is working extremely well, and we have extremely rigorous oversight of academy chains. We welcome Ofsted’s batch inspection of schools in academy chains and the support that it gets from those chains. However, Ofsted has a lot to do and, given the very tight grip that we have on the central management of these chains, we do not think that it is necessary for it to go any further than that.

My Lords, my noble friend will be aware that academy chains are always catching up with some of the smallest local authorities in terms of the number of schools for which they are responsible. Local authorities’ children’s services and school improvements are inspected. Why does the Minister think that academy chains should not be inspected as chains?

I think I have just said that I believe that the department has a very tight grip on the central management of academy chains, which, as I said, are performing extremely well by and large. That is not the case with local authorities, among which there are many unfortunate failures. Nearly 400 local authority schools are in special measures and 30 have been in special measures for 18 months. As my noble friend knows, a number of local authorities have, according to Ofsted, been performing particularly poorly.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that it is a benefit that schools can work in partnership, whether through chains or other means? Can we look back at the London Challenge and the Greater Manchester Challenge to see what more can be done to help schools to work together in partnership, particularly with outstanding heads mentoring other heads?

I entirely agree with the noble Earl. The school-to-school support model, which you could say was pioneered by the London Challenge, started by the previous Government, is one that we favour over other models. That is why we focus all academy groupings on a local and regional cluster basis, whether or not they are part of chains. We think that school-to-school support is the way forward.

My Lords, given the enormous success that the academies have achieved in turning round schools and offering opportunities to youngsters, why does the Minister think that we have so many Questions from the party opposite sniping at these very considerable successes?

I think that I have in the past alluded to the fact—without wishing to rise to the challenge too much—that for many years many schools in this country have undoubtedly been allowed years to languish in failure. We now have many successful chains, such as ARK, Harris, Outwood Grange, REAch2, Greenwood Dale, Aldridge and Perry Beeches, which are turning round inner-city schools that were previously just written off. Some of their performance statistics are really quite miraculous.

My Lords, I should like to return to the issue of inspection. In as much as the multichain bodies are involved in the governance of all the academies in their chain, and Ofsted inspects governance, why does Ofsted not also inspect the chains themselves?

Ofsted looks at the support that chains are giving to their schools, and we have a very tight grip on the governance of all the chains. We have been in discussions with 50 chains to strengthen their governance arrangements and have a network of non-executive directors whom we have been introducing to chains to support them.

To restore public confidence, should not these institutions be genuine, single, self-standing schools without these rather dodgy business connections where chains are using taxpayers’ money which may not be properly audited?

It is absolutely clear that anyone in any sort of governance arrangement with an academy or an academy chain cannot profit from their engagement. Any services provided from the connected party must be provided at no more than cost, and many of those philanthropists provide those services at considerably less than cost.