LSE report is not quite the ringing endorsement for academies that supporters suggest

Janet Downs's picture
“A major report by the London School of Economics this week concluded that academies are improving standards in neighbouring schools: quality is contagious; competition drives up standards,” said the Telegraph.

But that’s not quite what the report said. True, the researchers wrote, “it is possible for performance improvements in an academy to generate significant beneficial external effects on their neighbouring schools”. The researchers did find that results in neighbouring schools rose which would seem to endorse the Telegraph’s conclusion about competition. However, the researchers said that the academy effect occurred when schools were “mainly” near an academy that produced “large significant improvements in their pupil performance”. Does this mean there was little, or no, effect when schools were near an academy that did not achieve “large significant improvements”?

Despite the academy effect only seeming to work when the academy improved significantly, the researchers claim there is a possibility that neighbouring schools would improve just by being near any academy. Note – this is a possibility not a certainty. And rather than being a ringing endorsement for academies, the report concludes: “the results paint a (relatively) positive picture of the academy schools that were introduced by the Labour government of 1997-2010.” “Relatively positive” – hardly the irrefutable vote of confidence implied in the Telegraph report.

In any case correlation does not imply causation. An academy appears – academy results rise - results in neighbouring schools rise. It doesn’t follow that the rise in performance in the latter schools was caused by the appearance of the former. So what other reasons might there be? Improved methods of teaching? Teaching to the test? A move from GCSE to “easier” vocational exams? Grade inflation artificially increasing the scores in all schools?

And what happens when most schools are academies as Mr Gove wants? How will the alleged academy effect work then?
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The authors of the report compared their observed results against a group of ‘dummy’ schools which had similar intakes but no nearby academy affect. This would negate the global external factors that you cite and try to isolate any change as being caused by the one big difference between the sets of schools, i.e. the proximity of a successful academy.

Fiona Millar's picture
Tue, 07/06/2011 - 07:41

The other important point these report fails to make is that you can't really compare like for like because the similar schools did not benefit from the investment of time and large sums of money , particularly on new buildings, that went into the Labour academies. We will never know how much better those 'control' schools would have done if they had benefited from similar investment, and also changed their admissions arrangements in the way that some of the academies have. Most academy studies do link the improved results with changing intakes, and the new buildings have undoubtedly made those schools more attractive. It is also interesting to note that in the last Annual Report from Ofsted, the proportion of good and outstanding schools was higher in the maintained sector than it was amongst academies , suggesting that the so called 'academy effect' isn't universal.
I can name two schools , local to me, that also got new buildings under BSF, and with outstanding new head teachers, have improved in a similar way, in terms of results and Ofsted gradings. Both are now attracting back local parents but neither needed to be an academy to do this.

The schools in proximity wouldn’t have necessarily had significant investment in them, and yet they are improving. So it’s not just about hurling cash at a problem.

Also, didn’t many academies come into being from schools that weren’t doing so well? If that is the case then it isn’t so surprising that there is a smaller proportion of good and outstanding academies.

Finally, given the choice I would go for outstanding head teachers over new buildings every time.

Fiona Millar's picture
Tue, 07/06/2011 - 08:54

It isn't clear at all clear from the report how anyone can prove that improvement in neighbouring schools is down to the academies. Schools have also improved in areas where there are no academies, partly to do with other initiatives such as London Challenge, as Nick Pearce, now director of the IPPR and closely involved with education policy at the time these schools were being set up, points out here.

I don't think it should be an "either or" with excellent head teachers and great buildings. All children should be entitled to both. I believe that is what parents in the private sector expect ( judging from those schools websites) and get. Why shouldn't pupils of parents who can't afford school fees be educated in schools that aspire to both?

Yes, of course, if we can give kids both then that's great. I was suggesting that with the two schools that you refer to it may well be that the Heads have a much bigger effect than the buildings.

Fiona Millar's picture
Tue, 07/06/2011 - 09:27

Actually I think the buildings played a huge part in attracting back local parents. Dazzling new premises and great facilities, especially for sport , drama, music etc also often appeal to the children. I think it is worth remembering that they too ( rightly) have a say in these decisions. It is true that a weak head might well neutralize the benefits of a great environment, but strong leadership and new buildings together they can make a powerfully attractive choice. The Labour government also linked the chance to get BSF money with a requirement to have academies as part of the BSF business case so in many areas they were the schools that got the investment. Some were not even schools that were failing and some were brand new schools that didn't replace underperforming institutions.

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 07/06/2011 - 12:43

Would that dummy group be the control schools, or comparison group, which the researchers describe as being state-maintained schools that went on to become academies after the sample period ended? The researchers estimated “the impact of academy school conversion on the pupil intake and pupil performance of its neighbouring schools by comparing the average change in the performance of the neighbouring schools, before and after conversion, relative to a set of control schools.” OK, so far (I think). But the control schools all became academies after the research period ended and before the passing of the Academies Act 2010. The control group, therefore, converted when it was only possible for “failing” schools to become academies. So did the control group comprise only failing schools? And does this matter? I don’t know.

Even if we discount the possible external factors, this doesn’t negate the fact that the report was not a whole-hearted endorsement for the “academy effect”. The researchers found that it happened “mainly” where an academy increased its results by a large amount, and these academies comprised the early converters (although more time was needed to assess the impact, if any, of later converters). And the researchers concluded that their research painted “a (relatively) positive picture” of academies and their effects. “A (relatively) positive picture” is not a categorical endorsement of the effects of competition.

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 07/06/2011 - 13:30

The research also contained erroneous statements about LA maintained schools:

1 “such schools do not have responsibility for any staffing decisions.” Decisions about staffing are made by school governing bodies – the LA may employ the staff but the school’s governing body appoints them. It’s true that LA schools are bound by nationally agreed staff conditions of service and pay structure, and many academies sign up to them. It may be thought to be a good thing if academies have more flexibility over “hiring and firing” but not if it leads to mass compulsory redundancies to save money.

Neither will taxpayers be pleased to know that some academy staff are being offered private medical insurance or that Mr Gove was promoting this perk as an incentive to staff to join academies.

2 “These schools [LA schools] possess little autonomy”. This exaggerates the control of LAs. In fact, LAs don’t control every aspect of what goes on in LA maintained schools – their role is limited to such things as admissions and delegating funding. “LAs are democratically accountable which gives them a distinctive leadership role in the local community to set a vision for education and to bring together partners to achieve change and improvement.”

Challenge: I couldn’t find information about the responsibilities of local authorities to education on the DfE website. It’s probably there somewhere under the mountain of info about free schools/academies and so on. If anyone can discover in which subterranean cavern it is hidden then perhaps you could provide a link.

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