What did the National Audit Office (NAO) really say about academies in 2010?

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The Government also cites the National Audit Office (NAO) report of 2010 to support its claim that academy conversion can raise standards.  But does the Government's claim stand up to scrutiny?

The NAO found that although “the proportion of academy pupils achieving five or more A*-C GCSEs was improving at a faster rate than in maintained schools with similar intake…there were a small number of academies which made little progress, particularly when English and mathematics were considered”. NAO noted that some academies had been judged by Ofsted to be inadequate.

Academies were specifically set up to improve the results of disadvantage pupils. NAO found that the performance of academy pupils eligible for free school meals, have English as an additional language or have special educational needs had improved. But, on average, the gap in attainment between more disadvantaged pupils and others has grown wider in academies than in comparable maintained schools.

When sponsored academies were established, the support of a sponsor was thought to be crucial to an academy’s success. NAO found that “Academy sponsorship can bring benefits such as a clear ethos, business and educational expertise and additional financial support.” But NAO discovered that a “significant proportion” of academies had not received the financial help originally pledged by their sponsors. [Note: sponsors are no longer required to pledge financial support].  NAO was also concerned about a conflict of interest when sponsors put pressure on their academies to purchase services from the sponsor.  NAO feared that this might not be good value for money.

Academies are supposed to benefit from being able to manage their entire budget. However, NAO reported that some academies were struggling to deal with their finances. It found that the Young People’s Learning Agency had identified that “just over a quarter of academies may require additional financial or managerial support to secure their longer term financial health.”

The NAO concluded: "Many of the academies established so far are performing impressively in delivering the intended improvements. It cannot be assumed, however, that academies' performance to date is an accurate predictor of how the model will perform when generalised more widely. Existing academies have been primarily about school improvement in deprived areas, while new academies will often be operating in very different educational and social settings."

Past performance in academies, which was not uniform in any case, is no predictor of future performance and it is, therefore, unwise to press forward with mass academy conversion particularly with primary schools.