Academies raise standards, twitters DfE. Not exactly, says FactCheck

Janet Downs's picture
The Department for Education (DfE) is in a Twitter frenzy: “Do academies raise standards? Yes - says Channel 4's @FactCheck.” Unfortunately for the DfE, Channel 4’s FactCheck did not give a categorical thumbs-up.

Channel 4’s FactCheck sarched for evidence to back up Mr Gove’s statement in his speech on 4 January 2012 that the “the 166 sponsored academies with results in both 2010 and 2011, the percentage point increase in pupils achieving five plus A*-C including English and maths was double that of maintained schools.” DfE statistics back this up, but FactCheck pointed out that the sponsored academies were established from underperforming schools and “If you compare the exam results of an underperforming school to an average one, you are starting from a lower base, and it may be that the worse things are to begin with, the quicker they improve.”

FactCheck looked at research that compared like with like - balancing academies with schools that have similar pupil demographics and levels of attainment. It considered two studies: one by the National Audit Office (NAO) and the London School of Economics (LSE) report on the academy effect. FactCheck found that both studies concluded “tentatively that there is some evidence that some academies may be delivering GCSE gains faster than similar schools.” “Tentatively”, “some evidence”, “may be” are not phrases associated with a fully positive recommendation.

FactCheck looked at other evidence. It found that the House of Commons public accounts committee had noted that there was no way of discovering whether an academy’s success could be attributed to its newfound autonomy as opposed to other features related to the school’s academy status. FactCheck cited concerns about whether the pupils who are being compared are sitting exams of comparable difficulty, and it also found that academies tended to do worse than other school on the Ebac measure.

FactCheck’s verdict was that “a dose of healthy scepticism appears to be needed whenever ministers seek to use statistics to prove the supposed superiority of the academy model.” At the same time, it’s not entirely true to say there is absolutely no proof that academies increase performance. FactCheck concluded, “What we still don’t know is whether the improvements will continue in the long term, whether they will be felt in academies that were already academically successful, whether the effect has anything to do with increased autonomy, and whether the whole project is cost-effective.”

Not entirely the ringing endorsement claimed by the DfE.

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