Academies: Where's the evidence?

Published: 26th May 2010

Today Education Secretary Michael Gove has sent invitations to all secondary and primary schools offering them the chance to become academies - state schools freed up from local authority control.

There is a degree of consensus on academies programme, initiated by Labour and set to be expanded by the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition.

However trade unions are wary of the policy and the expansion of the programme, announced in yesterday's Queen's speech, was dismissed by the NASWUT union.

The Claim

In a statement, the General Secretary of the union Chris Keates said: "If academies are being set up to raise standards, then the evidence shows that they perform no better than any other type of schools."

Given the wide acceptance of the view that academies are successful in driving up standards in schools, it is worth checking Mr Keates claim that the evidence does not back up this view.

Analysis

Checking this claim there is one simple question to begin with: Is there any evidence of academies success?

The short answer is yes. Full Fact contacted the Department for Education who pointed us in the direction of statistics showing academies improving their GCSE performance at rates above the national average.

For instance for academies with results in both 2008 and 2009 the number of pupils gaining five GCSEs at grade A*-C including maths and English was up 5 per cent, compared to a 4.3 per cent increase the previous year. This was double the national average.

This would suggest that comparatively academies do perform better than other types of schools.

Yet the picture is not that simple.

A National Audit Office report into academies showed that while 2006 GCSE results were broadly little different to similar schools, "taking account of both pupils' personal circumstances and prior attainment, academies' GCSE performance [was] substantially better".

The results in the new academies were also an improvement on the results attained by the schools they replaced, the report found.

In 2008 a PriceWaterhouseCoopers evaluation into academies noted that while academies in general saw more improvement between Key Stage Two and GCSE than the national average, there was "considerable diversity" in the performance of academies.

Furthermore, in 2008, a report by the Sutton Trust, also suggested the other possible explanations for the improvement in academies' performance than simply that the programme was intrinsically successful.

"The picture is mixed and the evidence not easy to interpret. The average attainment of pupils in Academies has risen but in certain cases their intakes have changed. There are continuing concerns about achievement levels in a number of Academies," the report argued.

There is also evidence questioning the notion that academies out-perform their state school counterparts.

Last year research by the Centre for Economic Performance at the London School of Economics suggested that the GCSE results "look less impressive when benchmarked against other poorly performing matched schools."

The research suggests that the performance of academies was "statistically indistinguishable" from similar schools that did not become academies.

While the case for academies can appear contentious there is another factor limiting the amount of evidence; time. Given that the programme is relatively new, all of the reports outline above stress that it is very much early days for academies, so the evidence is necessarily limited.

Yet there is another problem limiting our ability to reach an accurate assessment of academies.

This is apparently compounded by a lack of available information probing deeper into academies performance at GCSE.

Think tank Civitas has raised concerns that while the figures for GCSEs may be accurate, there are question marks over the worth of the qualifications obtained.  However, when Civitas sought to obtain a breakdown of such results, they were unable to obtain the figures as academies are not covered by Freedom of Information Act.

Anastaisa de Waal, Deputy Director at Civitas explained that this could give the appearance of a strong GCSE performance,  when instead "pseudo vocational" qualifications were being gained.

"It looks like the academy is actually doing very well at GCSE but it actually may not be doing many GCSEs at all it may be doing other sorts of qualifications.

"If academies think this is fine why are they not prepared to show us a breakdown?" she said.

She added: "I'm sure there are fantastic academies out there but there are also likely to be pretty weak academies in terms of the sort of education they are providing.  At the moment we simply don't know how many there are of each kind  so it really is absolutely premature to be saying that academies are a success.

"The last Government and the current one simply don't have that kind of information to be able to make those conclusions."

Conclusion

While teaching unions such as NASWUT may be sceptical of academies, to simply say academies perform no better than other state schools masks a hugely contentious debate on the new schools' collective record.

Yet Chris Keates' comments raise an important point about the lack of incontrovertible evidence on the success of academies, given the degree of political consensus on the issue.

Given such problems around the evidence, the findings of the next National Audit Office report on academies — due this summer — becomes all the more important.


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