Almost a quarter of primary schools in England are now academies, meaning that thousands of three and four year olds - and a small but significant proportion of two year olds - receive their early education at a nursery class in an academy. This makes academies a significant player in the early education sector, so we were rather surprised when we started this project to find that very little had been written about their impact on children and on the local early education sector. Despite the fact that primary academies have been allowed since 2010, the majority of commentary and analysis focuses on secondary academies and their results.
We wanted to find out what impact academisation of primary schools was having on the quality and availability of early education. We looked at existing data, and visited four areas to complete in depth local case studies. So far, there isn’t much of a difference in the Ofsted ratings of primary academies and local authority maintained schools, or in their likelihood of having a nursery class. There’s very little difference between the proportion of children who get free school meals in academies and local authority schools. As always, this conceals a lot of variations -– ‘sponsor’ academies, which are required to convert because of a poor Ofsted inspection result, tend to be based in more deprived areas than ‘convertor’ academies which chose to change. There are also different models for academy trusts -– some are single schools, some are small local chains of maybe three or four schools, and some are large regional or national ones.
Our case studies reflect some of this local variation. Some schools we spoke to are part of large chains, and others smaller chains or local federations. Academies which are part of chains tend to report advantages to for their early years provision, notably that they can share good practice and resources between schools, for example specialised staff support for children with special educational needs or disabilities.
Of course, this type of shared good practice, and more formal shared resourcing, has historically been managed by local authorities. Local authorities can also intervene where early education providers are not performing well, and work with them to improve standards. They often have good local knowledge which helps them to intervene early and provide support when schools are struggling. The last few years have generally seen a reduction in the amount of support offered by local authorities as their funding is cut, but there are still significant differences between local areas. Academies do not have to use these local authority early education networks, although in practice many do. One case study area reported that having initially opted out of local authority early years support, some academies were now rejoining.
In the medium term, we are concerned that primary academisation will reinforce the trend for local authority networks to weaken, making it harder to manage the whole childcare and early education market in an area and make sure that no children miss out. We’re also concerned that issues that affect all schools -– funding pressures for both early years provision and provision for older children -– are just as serious for academies as for maintained schools, and may lead to less school-based early years provision being available overall. This is a particular worry for children from lower income families, who tend to take their early education in schools rather than private nurseries, and thus benefit from their higher quality. It’s important that we keep a watchful eye on the quality and availability of early years education in academies given the rapid changes taking place in both school and childcare policy.