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Schools: Academies

Volume 771: debated on Tuesday 3 May 2016


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether there is any evidence that academies automatically perform better than local authority maintained schools, particularly those that are already categorised as high-performing.

My Lords, schools that have chosen to convert to academies—that is, those that are high-performing—are obtaining better results, improving their results and more likely to be rated good or outstanding by Ofsted. Secondary converter academies are performing seven percentage points above the national average and continue to improve. Primary converter academies improved by one percentage point in 2015, and those open for two years or more by four percentage points since either 2012 or their last results as an LA-maintained school.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Academy status is appropriate for some schools, but there is simply no evidence that mere conversion in itself guarantees success, as the Education Select Committee reported last year. What counts is hard work and a clear plan for improvement, both of which can be achieved without conversion. The Government need to accept that they have failed to win the argument on mass academisation. They have, however, achieved a remarkable feat: since the publication of the White Paper we have seen the emergence of a broad alliance involving parents, head teachers, trade unions, local government leaders, both Labour and Conservative, and MPs, more of a few of whom are Conservatives—all implacably opposed to forced academisation. Can the Minister tell the House who, apart from existing academy chains, has come out in favour of the White Paper’s proposals?

A great many people have come out in favour of the White Paper’s proposals. I am glad the noble Lord got to a question eventually; I think I answered his original point in my first Answer. There has been lot of international research. The Sutton Trust has told us that sponsored academies are doing better at closing the gap. Ofsted has said that attainment in sponsored academies has increased over time, with the longest-standing academies having the strongest performance. The NFER has told us that the attainment gap between pupils eligible for FSM and those not is narrower in converter academies than in similar maintained schools.

Has the Minister seen the report of the National Audit Office and its serious criticisms of the accounts of the Department for Education in respect of academies, and the words of the head of the National Audit Office, who said:

“Providing Parliament with a clear view of academy trusts’ spending is a vital part of the Department for Education’s work—yet it is failing to do this”?

Should the Minister and his department not put their own house in order before they have a blanket development of new academies?

I have seen that report. The issue is purely technical, based on different year-ends for schools and for the department, which will not be an issue this year because of methodology. I also saw the Audit Commission’s 2014 report, which found 200 cases of fraud in local authority-maintained schools in the previous year. Given that I walked into the Department for Education in 2010 to find a department completely financially out of control after 13 years of Labour government, I do not take lessons from the party opposite.

My Lords, there has been considerable concern about poorly performing primary schools. How many have been taken over by academy sponsors and with what results?

There are 960 primary sponsored academies open as of April this year, many of which previously suffered from chronic underperformance. In 2015, the percentage of pupils in sponsored primary academies achieving the expected level in reading, writing and maths at the end of key stage 2 rose by four percentage points to 71%. Results in primary sponsored academies open for two years have improved on average by 10 percentage points since opening—more than double the improvement in local authority-maintained schools over the same period.

My Lords, I listened carefully to the noble Lord’s answer. I thought that the noble Lord, Lord Watson, asked how many organisations had come out in favour of every school being forced to become an academy. The Minister made some comments on academies in general but I am not sure he answered that question.

We make absolutely no apology for our belief in academies and multi-academy trusts, because of the substantial benefits of academy freedoms and working together in close families of schools. If noble Lords were to spend any time meeting the people who run academies or multi-academy trusts and saw the substantial benefits—for instance, for their staff and pupils—they would understand.

My Lords, will the Minister explain to the House when answering a direct question became a matter of PR? Will he answer the concern of local authority and church voluntary-aided schools in counties such as Lancashire? Will he say that no small primary schools will be closed on financial grounds in his programme of academisation?

I will give the noble Baroness an independent view from the chief inspector, who believes that every school should be an academy. As for local authorities, of course there are a lot of high-performing local authorities and we very much hope that people there will continue to be involved, by spinning out and setting up academy trusts. As I said in an Answer last week, no strong schools will close as a result of the policies in the White Paper. Indeed, we think that many rural schools will be much stronger working together in multi-academy trusts. There are very strict rules about the closure of small and rural schools, and I expect that all such considerations will continue in the future in relation to all rural schools.

My Lords, I have a slightly different angle on this Question. Where there is a playgroup that wishes to join a primary school that is an academy, because it wants to get that continuous stream of education through the playgroup, the primary school and into the secondary schools, what kind of help do the Government give to that playgroup?

We are now seeing quite a lot of primary academies opening nurseries. The issue of playgroups and children’s centres is one we are considering and I would be happy to discuss it further with the noble Baroness outside the House.