The Coalition Government are busy forcing lower-attaining primary schools to become sponsored academies on the grounds that results will improve faster. In recent months this myth has been demolished by research.
The comparison between attainment gains in primary academies and those in all other schools was inherently problematic because improvement tends to be greater from a lower starting point. In fact, when compared with other primary schools with a similar starting point, it becomes clear that primary sponsored academies have improved significantly less than local authority primary schools. (See research by Henry Stewart and Warwick Mansell)
This has not stopped Nicky Morgan, the current Secretary of State, from repeating the myth and forcing schools to become academies – though many are certainly not seen as ‘failing’ by their communities and are resisting vigorously. (See the Anti-Academies Alliance website.)
Transferring schools from local authority control into the hands of commercial sponsors was a milestone in the privatisation of public services. This began with low-attaining secondary schools in poorer areas, and Blair’s New Labour ministers only got away with it by claiming that it was improving education for disadvantaged communities. The chosen evaluator PricewaterhouseCoopers concluded that attainment was improving faster than the national average in sponsored academies, though it eventually began to express some reservations.
However PWC failed to take serious several critical factors:
- many academies had less disadvantaged pupils than the schools they replaced, for a variety of reasons (widespread exclusions; expensive uniforms to deter hard-up parents; brand new buildings and the hype about academy success drawing in ambitious families from further afield)
- academies were using easier alternative qualifications which counted as multiple GCSEs far more than most schools
- the early sponsored academies were improving no faster than other schools which started from the same levels of attainment.
This research also refuted the argument that disadvantaged pupils were doing better in sponsored academies than elsewhere.)
By this stage however, the story about academies’ faster improvement had taken such a hold that it became almost impossible to get any MPs or journalists to listen to contrary evidence.
It is only recently that even research funded by government or government-friendly bodies has begun to take these issues on board. In particular a study commissioned by the Sutton Trust acknowledged the reliance on “equivalents” and identified enormous variation between different sponsor ‘chains’. After a thorough discussion of numerous factors, and leaving aside three very small local groups, the report finds only two large chains which are generally successful, ARK and Harris, each with around 25 schools.
One piece of independent research even cast doubts about one of these sponsors. ‘Disidealist’ compares the pupil population of some Harris secondary academies with nearby primary schools. It demonstrates that some Harris academies, though located in deprived areas, have significantly fewer children with FSM, EAL or SEN than the surrounding primaries, and more pupils with higher KS2 scores. The author argues that they are “not, therefore, struggling manfully with disadvantaged working class kids.” In fact, earlier analysis by Wrigley and Kalambouka raised similar questions about pupil population.
Finally let us look at the most recent GCSE results (2014). The tighter rules about ‘equivalent’ qualifications were a problem for many schools, but seriously challenged academies which had relied most heavily on this device.
Looking at the 193 sponsored academies established before the Coalition Government (i.e. where most 2014 GCSE candidates had had their entire secondary education in an academy), we discover the following:
- Contrary to myth, not all of them fit the stereotype of concentrated disadvantage – in fact, nearly 1 in 6 have less than the national average proportion of disadvantaged pupils
- 1 in 3 (64 academies) are below the current “floor”
- In more than half (103 academies), disadvantaged pupils do less well than nationally.
The more successful academies tend to be in London, which, given recent data, suggests that their relative success may depend on other factors than academy sponsorship.
It is significant that these 193 schools are long-established academies, given political arguments about sponsors transforming struggling schools. Though many had began as seriously challenged schools, considerable energy has been devoted to repositioning them within the local competitive economy and re-engineering the pupil population. It is no longer appropriate to evaluate them by comparing them with schools they replaced around 10 years ago.
The ‘floor target’ is an unjust measure, since it takes no account of the challenges each school faces. Nevertheless, these figures seriously undermine the claim that sponsors provide the answer to poverty-related underachievement. Altogether (leaving aside special schools or alternative provision) 388 schools are below the floor target: of these, 42% are sponsored academies, 16% converter academies, 21% community schools and 21% foundation, volontary aided or controlled. The number of converter academies (64) below floor target is particularly surprising: these schools were deemed successful enough to thrive independently without the support of either a local authority or a sponsor.
None of this is intended as a slur against the many dedicated and hardworking teachers who find themselves working in academies. But that is precisely the point: despite all the extra money that has been spent (the transition funds, the impressive buildings), all the political hype to boost their reputation, and all the damage done by breaking up local authority support, sponsored academies have brought no benefits that could not have been achieved within local education authorities.
The wheels are falling off the policy of forced academisation, but rather late given the speed of privatisation under the Coalition.