“In countries where schools have greater autonomy over what is taught and how students are assessed, students tend to perform better,” Mr Gove told the Schools Network
, the renamed Specialist Schools and Academies Trust (SSAT). Mr Gove is quoting correctly from the OECD Pisa in Focus 9
but he should have read further on.
Pisa in Focus 9 discusses the relationship between school autonomy and accountability. The report uses findings based on information gathered during the 2009 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests. OECD, the organisation that administers PISA, wrote: “The Czech Republic, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and the partner economy Macao-China grant the greatest autonomy to schools – not only in allocating resources but also in making decisions about curricula and assessments.”
The Coalition is selling the academy conversion/free school policy on the premise that English schools need to be set free from heavy-handed control, but the OECD says that UK schools already had considerable autonomy in 2009 before the Coalition came to power. And despite UK schools having been bludgeoned with centralised initiatives and curricula changes since the National Curriculum was first introduced, secondary head teachers were still able to tell OECD researchers that they felt they had considerable freedom over resource allocation, staff recruitment, the school budget and what exams and courses to offer. Yet Mr Gove tells the same heads that they need to embrace academy conversion to get these freedoms.
Mr Gove repeated claims made at the Conservative Party Conference about how recently-converted academies were benefiting from their new status. A Freedom of Information request
found that apart from two factors, these claims were based on flimsy, even non-existent, evidence.
During the speech Mr Gove cited the “landmark assessment of the academies programme” by the London School of Economics
(LSE). What he didn’t say, of course, that the report was based on academies established by Labour from disadvantaged and poorly-performing schools. The LSE report noted that Coalition academies are mainly formed from schools that perform well, and more time was needed to come to an authoritative conclusion. Neither has he considered criticisms of the LSE report
that raw result indicators will often not show the whole picture of what has been going on in these pre-Coalition academies.
To Mr Gove, however, these academies “generate significant improvement in pupil performance”, but he omitted to say that this improvement was from a low base. Mr Gove said the improvement was not because the early academies were “scooping up middle-class pupils from nearby schools.” There is no mention in the LSE report of “middle-class pupils”. However, it did say that these early academies experienced “a sharp and significant increase” in the quality of their intake. And the report concluded that the significant improvement in GCSE results in early academies “is driven by the relatively more advantaged pupils attending the academies as compared to the predecessor school”.
And if Mr Gove thinks individual academies are marvelous, then he rhapsodizes over academies in groups. These “are collaborating on a scale that has never been witnessed before”. Perhaps Mr Gove should reflect on what is happening to the 16-19 sector as schools, particularly academies, are opening sixth-forms. The Principal of Lancaster and Morecombe College, quoted in TES*, said, “The market distorts numbers and undermines the rational use of resources. I think schools and colleges are finding that they are the victims of poor policy making… This isn’t the best thing for the young people and it isn’t the best thing for the local area… When you are talking about young people’s lives, you can’t afford to have losers.”
*”By hook or by crook”, 9 December 2011, TES, not available on-line, discusses how FE colleges and school sixth-forms “using fair means or foul… are battling to attract as many post-16 students – and the associated funding – as they can.”