Special report: How has academy status affected Norfolk and Suffolk’s Ofsted grades?
- Credit: Steve Adams
Thousands of children in our region are now taught in academies. But is the system working? In the second part of a series examining academy schools in our region, education correspondent MARTIN GEORGE looks at their Ofsted grades
How do you know how good your local schools are?
The chances are that GCSE league tables, a visit to the school or the views of friends will help you form your opinion. But for many parents the judgment of an independent Ofsted inspector carries real weight.
It is certainly important for the government and councils, who use Ofsted grades to make crucial decisions about which schools are doing well, and which need intervention.
Indeed, many of the decisions to turn Norfolk and Suffolk schools into academies were triggered by poor Ofsted reports.
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So, if we compare the last Ofsted report before schools became academies with the latest report since they converted, how do the inspectors think they have done?
There is one word of warning. Successive changes to the Ofsted inspection criteria have made it harder for schools to gain the top grades, so headteachers argue it is not always possible to say whether a change in an inspection grade is due to changes at Ofsted, or changes at the school.
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That said, an analysis of Ofsted grades gives a mixed picture in terms of success.
For many sponsored academies – generally schools that were performing badly – their last pre-academy Ofsted report was their lowest point.
For the four Norfolk schools that were rated 'inadequate' before converting, it was impossible for their Ofsted grade to get worse. The question is whether they got better.
They did, with two now rated 'good', and two judged to 'require improvement'.
Overall, none of Norfolk's sponsored academies was rated 'good' or better before it became an academy; now, six are – including two which received the top 'outstanding' grades: Ormiston Victory Academy in Costessey, and Ormiston Venture Academy in Gorleston.
In Waveney, East Point Academy's predecessor school was 'inadequate', and the academy received the same judgment in 2013, but it improved to 'requires improvement' this year. Ormiston Denes improved from 'inadequate' before it converted to 'requires improvement' now.
However, while this Ofsted picture is generally positive, the story for the academies that have been open the longest is more complex.
The Open Academy, Thetford Academy and East Point Academy were all rated 'inadequate' in their first Ofsted reports after becoming academies, while City Academy Norwich initially improved from 'satisfactory' to 'good' after it replaced Earlham High, but then fell back to 'requires improvement' earlier this year.
If sponsored academies' pre-conversion grades were sometimes so low they could not get worse and top performing schools that were rated 'outstanding' cannot see their grade get even better. But can they maintain those standards?
None of the three Norfolk schools which had an 'outstanding' judgement when they converted kept that grade after their subsequent inspection, and none of the others has moved up into that category.
Of Norfolk's 12 converter academies to have been inspected so far, three saw their grades improve, five saw them stay the same, while four saw them fall. Not a great picture.
In north Suffolk, one, Hartismere, retained its 'outstanding' grade, three retained their 'good' grades, while Bungay High fell from 'outstanding' to 'requires improvement'.
The most notable change was that of Lynn Grove High, in Gorleston, which last year became the first – and, so far, only – converter academy in Norfolk to be judged 'inadequate'. It had not only been rated 'outstanding' when it became an academy, but also sponsored another school, Woodlands Primary. Since the 'inadequate' judgment, both have been taken over by the Creative Education Trust, and Lynn Grove's grade improved to 'requires improvement' following an inspection in May.
In Norfolk in the last four years, 11 non-academies saw their Ofsted grades fall, seven remained the same, and eight got better. The biggest movement came in the number of schools falling into the 'inadequate' category – seven – triggering the process that saw them all become sponsored academies.
None has had full Ofsted inspections since then, but Ofsted inspectors returned to all of them at least once before they became academies, to carry out an monitoring inspection. In each case, they found either that the school's action plan was 'fit for purpose', or the school was making 'reasonable progress' towards getting out of special measures, or removing their 'serious weakness' designation. That raises the question of whether becoming an academy is really necessary for troubled schools like these to improve.
In our story yesterday on GCSE trends, the figures for The Open Academy should have read that its results rose from 16pc in 2008 as Heartsease High to 44pc in 2015, not as stated.
In my view...
Patrick Payne, 23, was at a Norfolk high school which became an academy and says it changed beyond recognition. He remembers it to be a place focused on community, but now he and girlfriend Tracey Lees are considering sending her daughter to study elsewhere.
'Since it became an academy they're only interested in test results and their Ofsted report rather than the children in the academy,' said Mr Payne, of Little Snoring.
'It used to be a lot about the students. They would go to great lengths to help them and get them through the work they couldn't do.
'Now, if they have a child that can't get on, they would rather get rid of them than help for Ofsted results so it's not a black mark about them.'
He said the academy switch, had also pushed up uniform prices, with £100 easily spent on two jumpers, two pairs of trousers, a skirt and a tie for this academic year.
'Generally the whole attitude of everybody there has changed,' he added.
'It is like they don't care about their students any more.'
The Ofsted expert
Ofsted inspectors are sent into academies to examine their performance on a daily basis, so how does Andrew Cook, the inspectorate's regional director for the East of England, think academies are doing?
'I think there are some academies that are working exceptionally well', he said. 'There are some do not, just like any other type of school. I think you then have to say, why is that?'
For him, there can be particular concerns about converter academies that decided to become independent, rather than joining a wider organisation.
He said: 'I think there are some issues around isolation. When a school converts to an academy, does it ensure that that level of accountability is maintained? Isolation, being left alone, is a real challenge for some of those academies.
'We see some of the better academies are those in strong multi-academy trusts where there are systems in place for schools to challenge each other, to peer review, and to ensure they learn from the best practice. I think the minute you find a school that goes it alone, I think you can find problems.'
This is an issue that civil servants have recognised, with schools seeking to become converter academies now being encouraged to think carefully about the benefits of joining a wider organisation. Increasing numbers of existing converter academies also looking at joining academy trusts.
So have academies used their freedoms well?
'I think there is some evidence where academies have chosen a curriculum wisely, but the reverse could be true, and those freedoms could be misinformed and misjudged, and they restrict the potential for pupils' achievement. Freedom can be used both ways, and it can be freedom to do really good stuff, or it can allow for people to make the wrong decisions.
'I don't think I would say there is a generic picture there. We have seen in any school that is failing weak decisions about the curriculum which inevitably come from poor leadership and management, and where it is an academy, that poor leadership and management not being challenged by the governors or the trust.'