Are non-academies failing to keep up?

28 January 2013

This article has been updated. See below

In a press release last week, the Department for Education (DfE) unambiguously stated that "secondary school performance tables show that standards are rising in sponsored academies at a record rate — and more than five times as quickly than in all state-funded schools." [Emphasis added.]

Here is how this story was reported in the Telegraph

"Around one-in-four schools and colleges — more than 600 — are failing to produce a single student with top A-level grades in subjects seen as a stepping stone to a leading university." 

This is less than one year after the Observer reported that academies were "attaining fewer good GCSEs," something which we factchecked, only to find that their analysis of the data had produced a somewhat simplistic conclusion. 

How are secondary schools and academies faring this year? 

Established in 2000 under Labour rule, academies are self-governing, state-funded schools. The architect of the reform was Lord Andrew Adonis. There are currently 2,619 academies in Britain, 501 of which are sponsored. Sponsored academies were once under-perfoming, failing secondary state schools which were then revamped and turned into academies to save them from closure. Their sponsors can be business people, philanthropists, religious institutions or universites.

The DfE press release goes on to say: 

"Across all state-funded schools, the proportion of pupils who achieved at least five good GCSEs (including in English and maths) rose by 0.6 percentage points. In sponsored academies, the increase was 3.1 percentage points."

It's important to recognise that the DfE is comparing a subset of academies with all state-funded schools. This means that it's effectively subtracting non-sponsored, also known as 'converter academies', out of the equation. 

What's the difference, and why is this important?

Converter schools were successful state secondary schools which converted into academies in order to operate independently from local education authorities. Given that sponsored academies were less successful to begin with, it's arguable that their improvement rate is likely to be more impressive in relative terms than that of converter academies. 

Writing for the Financial Times, Chris Cook also found that "one third of failing schools are sponsor academies."

School type Above target Below target
Sponsor academies 249 63
Converter academies 666 14
CTCs 3  
Community schools 897 72
Free schools 5  
Foundation schools 475 33
Studio Schools 1  
UTCs 2  
Voluntary aided 399 11
Voluntary controlled 64 2

But there's another element missing in the DfE's analysis: it's not clear how the improvement in GCSE results at academies compares to non-academies with similar results. 

It's important to ask this question because, as Local Schools Network (LSN) co-founder Henry Stewart observed in his blog post, "how much a school's GCSEs increase is related to its previous results. Those with previously low results tend to see large increases and those with previously high results tend to see only small increases or falls."

Full Fact also shed light on this issue more than two years ago.

If we graph the DfE's school-by-school data, and benchmark academies against non-academies according to their past achievements, the comparative outcome is not as impressive for academies: 

Graph by

The data in this graph relates to performance results from 2011 and 2012, and it counts 321 sponsored academies, 680 converter academies, and 2,027 non-academies. 

When we look at schools with a 20-40% GCSE benchmark, we can see that results grew by 7.8% in academies and by 7.7% in maintained schools. A difference of a scant 0.1%. In the case of 40-60% band, on the other hand, maintained schools fared slightly better than academies.

So the Department for Education's claim that standards in academies are rising "more than five times as quickly than in all state-funded schools" doesn't show us the the full picture.

The government's claim rests on looking specifically at sponsored academies versus all other non-academies, which include selective schools. Though given their nature the improvement rate of sponsored academies is calculated from a lower base, in this scenario it is accurate to say that sponsored academies have improved at a quicker rate than non-academies.

However, there is more than meets the eye when it comes to the speed of the recorded improvement. 

Updated on 16/09/2013 This piece has been updated to clarify that the government's claim rests explicitly on comparisons between sponsored academies and non-academies. 


Flickr image courtesy of James Sarmiento

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