Gove’s Conference soundbite re academies not backed up by evidence

Janet Downs's picture
One thing about Mr Gove – he sees himself as an orator. This week he was reprimanded by the Speaker during Educational Questions for behaving as if he were making a speech to the Oxford Union. But as well as often being time-wasting waffle, his rhetoric is also filled with misleading statistics or dubious data. Mr Gove repeated the discounted PISA UK 2000 figures at the Conservative Conference on 4 October 2011, and he said this about academies:

“One million children are now educated in academies. They benefit from longer school days, smaller class sizes, better-paid teachers, personalised learning, improved discipline and higher standards all round."

Mr Gove must have figures to back up his assertion. But a Freedom of Information request revealed this wasn’t wholly the case:

Length of school day: it is not possible to calculate the average length of an academy day compared with other types of school because the data does not exist. The FoI response quoted a 2008 evaluation which found that 80% of academies provided extended programmes. But so were hundreds of other schools through the Extended Schools initiative: a 2009 report found that the great majority of schools (91%) offered childcare and activities after school, two-thirds provided them before schools, and just over half during school holidays. And the response didn’t say that the 2008 evaluation only looked at 24 academies.

Average class sizes 2011: maintained primary schools: 26.6, primary academies 27.7; maintained secondary schools 20.6, secondary academies 19.4. Mr Gove was wrong about primary schools but correct about secondary schools (although the difference in either case was a little more than one).

Personalised learning: The DfE doesn’t collect data on individual schools’ curricula or learning plans. The FoI response said that an academy’s ability to opt out of the National Curriculum meant they could personalise learning. Thousands of non-academy schools also personalise learning – a trawl through Ofsted reports shows this. And hasn’t Mr Gove heard of SENCOs who develop individual learning plans for pupils with special needs?

Improved discipline: The FoI response gave examples of academies that have improved discipline in their previously failing schools. However, Ofsted reports praise the discipline in thousands of non-academy schools. The response quoted from a 2010 report which showed that academies’ fixed-period exclusion rates overall are higher than the maintained-sector average, and although permanent exclusions in relatively new sponsor led academies had fallen in the last three years, this was less rapidly than in other schools.

Higher standards: the response mentioned the LSE report on the academy effect which showed a significant improvement in pupil performance in sponsored academies. However, the response didn’t mention that the LSE found that this coincided with an increase in intake quality. The response also said that the LSE report found a positive effect on neighbouring schools, but didn’t mention that LSE thought more time was needed to fully assess the effect. The FoI response also found that the GCSE rate of improvement in sponsored academies was greater than in other schools. Again, it didn’t mention that the rate of improvement was from a lower base. Neither did it mention that there are also poor-performing academies. The United Learning Trust (ULT) was banned by the last government from taking on any more academies until their existing academies improved. ULT has now been reinstated by the present government even though a third ULT school, Stockport Academy, was judged inadequate last year.

Teacher pay: the average gross salary of full-time regular qualified classroom teachers in academies was £1,000 more than in other schools. The average gross salary of leadership level teachers in LA maintained nursery and primary schools was £51,600 and £60,700 in secondary schools. The equivalent figure in academies was £62,100.

It appears, then, that Mr Gove’s up-beat praise can only be upheld on two counts: teachers’ pay and class sizes in secondary academies. The other alleged benefits of academies rely on cherry-picking evidence, using data that doesn’t exist and ignoring evidence which shows that non-academies are also succeeding. His sweeping soundbite at the Tory Conference was nothing but pro-academy puff which insulted the teachers in the vast majority of English schools.

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