Last Friday the Department for Education set out its next steps in implementing the white paper “Education Excellence Everywhere”. This has been widely reported as a ‘u-turn’ on the Government’s plans to force all local authority maintained schools to become academies. This briefing note considers the extent to which the Government has changed direction and what that now means for full academisation.
Chapter 4 of the White Paper stated the Government’s intention to:
- Continue to encourage high performing maintained schools to put forward applications to become academies by 2020
- Implement measures in the Education and Adoption Act so that all inadequate schools become sponsored academies and coasting schools are tackled for the first time
- Take powers to direct schools to become academies in underperforming local authority areas or where the local authority no longer has capacity to maintain its schools; or where schools have not yet started the process of becoming an academy by 2020
Therefore, there were three elements to full academisation. The first is a continuation of the existing converter academies programme where high performing schools submitted applications to become academies, often joining multi-academy trusts. DfE report that the number of applications in April was the highest ever and that they expect that number of converter academies to continue to grow.
The second was the implementation of the Education and Adoption Act to tackle underperformance and as discussed in our previous policy briefing this in itself is a significant development. In the last month the Department for Education says it has issued over one hundred academy orders to schools rated as inadequate and we estimate that this will continue at a rate of around fifteen a month. In addition it provides powers to tackle ‘coasting’ schools, these will be defined for the first time early in the new year after the publication of the school performance tables.
The third was then the new forced academisation route of which there were three elements. Most of the debate has focussed on the final element – i.e. forcing individual schools to convert regardless of circumstances – and it is this part that the Government has now announced it will not pursue.
Likely scale of local authority level intervention
The power to act at a local authority level is potentially far more significant in terms of the number of schools reached than pursuing individual schools. We stress potentially as there are significant unknowns in the Government’s current position. Neither the white paper nor DfE’s press notice defined what constitutes an underperforming local authority – the white paper included plans for performance measures for multi-academy trusts but not for local authorities – or one that is unviable beyond being where a “critical mass of schools in that area has converted”.
So in order to assess what the likely implications of this announcement are we need to apply our own assumptions to these two local authority parameters. There are many different ways that these could be defined. For example performance could be judged by the proportion of schools rated as requires improvement, the proportion of pupils not making expected progress or the number of coasting schools.
For illustrative purposes we work on the basis that:
- A local authority is unviable if less than half of pupils in the area attend local authority maintained schools; and
- A local authority is ‘under-performing’ if the performance of its maintained schools at either key stage 2 or key stage 4 is below the (current) national average for state-funded mainstream schools.
This means that, for the purposes of this analysis, we define local authorities as underperforming if less than 81 per cent of pupils achieved level 4 or above in reading, writing and mathematics at key stage 2 or less than 58.1 per cent of pupils achieved five good GCSEs including English and mathematics at key stage 4.
On the face of it this might seem like a fairly high threshold, by definition there will be a large number of authorities that are below average. But both of these rates are below the attainment element of the Department’s proposed coasting measure for schools and assessment at both key stage 2 and key stage 4 is set to get tougher with the introduction of new assessment in primary this year and new GCSEs being introduced over the coming years.
We calculate performance data for each local authority based on the 2015 performance of schools that are currently maintained by the local authority. This differs from DfE’s published data for local authorities since they are area based measures (so include academies).
The overall performance of a local authority within this context can be affected by the number and type of schools that have already become academies. Those areas in which a significant proportion of high performing schools have become academies are likely to see lower results, conversely an area would be helped if many of its underperforming schools had closed to become sponsored academies.
Local authority approaches could reach 12,000 schools
Based on these definitions there are currently:
- 52 local authorities that are ‘unviable’;
- 53 local authorities where results at key stage 2 are below average; and
- 86 local authorities where results at key stage 4 are below average.
In total 122 local authorities (out of 152) meet our assumed criteria for at least one of unviable, below average key stage 2 or below average key stage 4 results.
By the beginning of this month there were around 15,000 local authority maintained schools that were not yet in the academy pipeline – i.e. if the Government wishes to achieve full academisation they need to reach 15,000 schools.
The 122 local authorities identified above cover around 12,000 maintained schools – this demonstrates the significant scale of the local authority level approach to academisation.
If this was delivered it would mean 3,000 schools remaining under local authority control with around 85% of schools being academies. Of these around 640 are currently rated as Outstanding.
However, this ignores the growth that is likely to come out of schools choosing to convert or failing and being forced to become sponsored academies. This both directly and indirectly increases the number of academies – as more schools convert, more local authorities will become unviable on this definition. It could lead to a situation where the decision of an individual school has implications for the wider authority.
Given the combination of voluntary conversion, academisation under the Education and Adoption Act and direction at local authority it is possible that full academisation (or very close to it) could be achieved without forcing schools one at a time.
Why the Department for Education now needs to provide greater clarity
In the analysis above we applied some simple assumptions to DfE’s statements on which local authorities would be in scope for academisation. The results will be sensitive to the precise assumptions made. For example, by setting the threshold for viability at 50% of pupils being in LA schools we captured 52 local authorities. If we had set it at 60% we would have reached 80 local authorities (see Figure 1) and included an additional 450 schools.
Figure 1: Number of local authorities by proportion of pupils currently in LA maintained schools (cumulative)
The impact of setting higher attainment thresholds would be even greater. An increase of just two percentage points at key stage 2 and key stage 4 would bring an additional 1,400 schools into scope.
What this demonstrates is that Friday’s announcement does not provide sufficient detail to assess the implications of the legislation that the Government is planning to introduce and whether this represents a genuine change of approach.
The definitions are vague and our own analysis has shown that relatively small changes could have implications for hundreds of schools. The Department for Education should now provide robust definitions setting out:
- On what basis it would consider a local authority to be unviable; and
- What constitutes underperformance in a local authority.
In Monday’s statement to Parliament the Secretary of State committed to setting out the thresholds in regulations and to consult on them. Given our concerns we welcome this development.
Edubase (6 May 2016) http://www.education.gov.uk/edubase/home.xhtml
DfE Open Academies and Projects in Development (April 2016) https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/open-academies-and-academy-projects-in-development
School Performance Tables 2016 http://www.education.gov.uk/schools/performance/
Ofsted monthly management information (April 2016) https://www.gov.uk/government/statistical-data-sets/monthly-management-information-ofsteds-school-inspections-outcomes
 DfE (2016) “Education Excellence Everywhere” p53.
 CentreForum (2016) “Academies and the Education and Adoption Act” http://centreforum.org/academies-and-the-education-and-adoption-act/
 Excluding schools in the pipeline to become academies
 Mainstream schools only. Excluding schools in the pipeline to become academies or schools that are now in a different structure (e.g. mergers) to that in Performance Tables. These represent a very small number of schools.