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£1 Billion Overspent on Academy Conversion & Results Go Down

Two months ago the National Audit Office revealed an overspend of £1 billion on the academy conversion programme. This week in the Financial Times Christopher Cook described how, in addition, government errors have led to an overspend of £174m on new academies, with individual academies receiving up to £1 million extra due to the mistake.

In December,at the Public Accounts Committee, Chris Wormald (Permanent Secretary at the Department for Education) justified the huge expense of academy conversion on the basis that “the government took a very conscious decision that its major school improvement programme was the academies programme.”

Has the investment in academy conversion worked?

The least that could be expected – from the extra money provided to the schools, the claimed benefits of the increased freedoms and the fact rthis is the government’s primary means of school improvement – is that some improvement happened. However a posting by Bill Watkins (Operations Director of the SSAT – the Specialist Schools & Academies Trust) this week reveals, based on DfE figures, that not only has there been no improvement but the numbers achieving the GCSE benchmark in converter academy schools fell by 0.7% in 2012.

At the same time it is not clear that the figure for sponsored academies has improved this year. We have already shown how the improvement in sponsored academies in recent years is no more, and sometimes less, than in similar maintained schools. Bill Watkins quotes a figure of 2.5% improvement last year for sponsored academies. However DfE figures show that the sponsored academy figure for the 2012 GCSE benchmark drops by 14.9% once you consider GCSEs only (and not equivalents like BTECs). In 2011 that drop was 11.8%. So the increase in the benchmark was 2.5% but 3.1% extra was due to increase in equivalents, suggesting the GCSE only figure for sponsored academies actually fell in 2012 by 0.6%.

Of the £1 billion, around £200 million went on the sponsored academy programme and so could be argued to be targeting the most needy schools. However the vast majority went on already successful schools, rated highly by Ofsted, and – according to this data – with no immediate benefit.

At the same time the argument that the high-performing schools converting to academy status would help weaker schools to improve has been seen not to happen. Indeed Bill Watkins in the same post explains why this is very unlikely to happen, because it is simply not in the interest of the new academies to help weaker schools.

These academies are all Good or Outstanding local schools who do a great job for their students. However there is no evidence of any improvement  resulting from this huge investment in academy conversion.

Will the fact that conversion to academy status caused a fall, not a rise, in results lead to any questioning of the programme? Will the lack of any evidence that converting successful schools lead to serious questioning of the £1 billion cost?

What could £1 billion have been spent on?

If education policy was driven by evidence and a desire for real educational improvement, then surely it would be time for a change in priorities. The most successful programme of school improvement in recent years was arguably the London Challenge, which helped transform education in the capital at a cost of around £50 million. Imagine if the £1 billion had been spent on similar schemes across the country.

Or I rather like the response of Mike Tomlinson (at a debate on free schools in Hackney in December) when asked what his priority would be: “If Michael Gove asked me ‘what would you invest in?’ I would say the development of teachers.” Imagine the scale of improvement if that huge investment had been made in teacher development rather than a change in school structures for which there is no evidence of benefit.

Data Notes & Sources

GCSE benchmark: 5 GCSEs including English and Maths

0.7% fall in converter academies GCSEs: SSAT article
2012 GCSEs by type of school, with figures for GCSEs only & with equivalents: DfE First statistical data release




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Comments, replies and queries

  1. Roger Titcombe says:

    Henry – You are right to draw attention to the scale of this spending, especially at a time when the government is attacking the poorest sections of society.

    Labour’s response has been to contrast these attacks on the poor with ‘tax breaks for the rich’, but DfE expenditure on the Academies and Free Schools programme is just as scandalous. What you have uncovered is likely to be just the tip of the iceberg. How can thousands of ‘independent’ schools be effectively regulated from the DfE in London? Even Wilshaw has questioned this.

    When are we going to see the Labout opposition mounting an attack on this waste of money that is increasing the national budget deficit? This would involve admitting that Blair’s Academy project was a mistake.

    Don’t hold your breath.

  2. “Successful reform…requires investment in the present teacher workforce, providing quality professional development, adequate career structures and diversification, and enlisting the commitment of teachers to reform.”

    These are the words of Andreas Schleicher (OECD). Michael Gove called him the “most important man in English education” for his analysis of global education statistics.

    So, some of the £1 billion pound could have been spent on professional development for existing teachers. Instead, Gove ignores the teachers already working in schools (except for a few favourites who publicly back his policies) and praises the new intake of trainee teachers. At the same time, Gove says that academies and free schools don’t have to employ these trained teachers.

    And Gove is attempting to dismantle the career structure of teachers by suggesting regional pay. He wants teachers paid by “performance” – heads would have the power to decide whether individual teachers receive pay awards or not. That ignores the fact that teaching is collaborative – in the best schools teachers (best in the sense of providing a good education, not just being at the top of league tables) support each other. And if the head has favourities (as Gove does), then career progression could become a gift handed to sycophants.

    Gove’s tactics alienate those whose commitment to reform is necessary. As Dr Bernard Trafford, writing in TES 11 Jan, says to Gove:

    “Stop regarding anyone who doesn’t agree with you as the enemy: start talking instead. The only way we’ll move forward is by reason and compromise, and reason, surely, is at the heart of education.”

    Instead he overspends by £1billion on his pet project – academy conversion.

  3. Richard says:

    The mainstream press is keeping very quiet over this.

  4. Henry – thanks for the link to Bill Watkins’s response to the Academies Commission report. He explains the disincentives for co-operation between schools.

    The successful London Challenge relied on schools being mutually-supported and teachers being committeed to all London pupils not just those in their own schools. Watkins rightly says that there is lack of financial support for co-operating schools. This was available under the London Challenge together with LA and external consultant support.

    Ofsted, in its London Challenge report, found heads thought that changing the school status had little impact on driving improvement. Ofsted also found the small number of London Challenge schools which did become sponsored academies were less inclined to support other schools after becoming academies and, if they did so, it was with other academies.

    So some of this £1billion overspend (and a good chunk of the underspend) could have provided financial backing to co-operating schools whatever their status.

    Rolling out the lessons learnt from the London Challenge across England would have done much more to raise performance and morale than the ill-conceived academy conversion programme.

    And it would have been much cheaper.

  5. Daz Dodz says:

    As a parent governor I found that there was certainly no desire to help other schools – it’s like expecting Tesco to help Asda only worse. These are competing businesses. Our school opted for one academy sponsor over another by just one vote with a couple of us abstaining as we did not agree with the route and only I opting to stay in the LA.I had argued we should stay for another year so that the improvements put in place via the LA could reap their rewards and to give those that wanted it another year to further assess these potential academy sponsors further.We were on target to exceed the goal and so there was no need to jump now.Well guess what, the school got its best results in donkeys years- well done that LA school I cheered ! They still jumped becoming an academy on NYD 2013.Governors who are teachers perhaps fear losing their jobs even when they are union reps , partner governors fear losing their business contracts at the school – don’t go there…. other governors turn up for flapjack and coffee and never say a word whilst others are looking for position in the new regime.What about the children eh ? I have resigned this week sticking to my principles.Others have left to and the sponsor are appointing their own govs so they don’t have and I quote ” a rogue governing body” Yes men line up here please , no questions asked….

    • Daz – well done for sticking to your principles.

      Re collaborating schools. According to the Government schools will co-operate with each other in this brave new academy world. But, as you rightly say, they won’t because they’re in competition.

      John Burn, OBE, a supporter of academies and an ex-principal of an academy, nevertheless saw dangers in academies joining chains. He warned the Education Bill Committee that academies in chains risked having less freedom than when they were LA schools.

      “Becoming an Academy is not necessarily a route to freedom and autonomy as is assumed,” he said.

      Yet the myth still persists that it is.

      You can read his evidence here:

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