Academy chains: No case for expansion

Henry Stewart's picture
Of the 249 schools listed in the DfE data as 'sponsor-led' academies, almost a third are run by chains. As Fiona Millar pointed out in the Guardian last summer, these are one of the fastest growing aspects of our new education landscape. The Oasis chain has grown from £3 million to £70 million between 2006 and 2010 and Ark from £3 million to £117.5 million. The E-act chain grew from £15.5 million to £60 million in just one year, from 2009 to 2010. (Since Fiona published this information, the chains have chosen to make their accounts private and so future figures will not be available.)

The chains appear to be strongly favoured by government. Toby Young, for instance, has commented that future free schools will only be able to get through government procedures if they are run by chains. E-act alone plans to run 126 schools by 2015. So how are the chains performing?

The Telegraph reported last week that "academies inflate results with easy qualifications". They found that while the results of non academies fell from 59% to 53% when "equivalents were removed", those of academies fell twice as much, from 50% to 38%, a drop of 12 percentage points.

Our analysis shows that the figures for the academy chains fell still further, from 52% to 36%, a drop of a full 16 percentage points:

The two most highly regarded chains fell most: ARK schools fell from 64% to 3%, a drop of 21 percentage points and Harris schools fell from 68% to 53%, a drop of 15 percentage points.

Once equivalent qualifications are removed, every chain achieves significantly lower results than the average non-academy, with four of the seven chains having an average below 35% achieving 5 GCSEs including English and Maths. E-act, despite its ambitious expansion plans, achieved an average across its schools of just 29%. Ormiston managed an average of just 22% [Figures/chart corrected, 9/3/12]

The chain schools do tend to have more disadvantaged intakes and so a better measure of their success is value added. Here there is a stark difference in the performance of the different chains. There is a good reason that the success of the ARK is often quoted, as their record is strong. However it is not matched by the other chains. If we look at value added for progress in English, where 1000 is the national average, only ARK schools are above this national average:

AET    990
ARK   1004
E-ACT   1000
Harris   1000
Oasis   999
Ormiston   997
ULT 998

On average chain academies score 998.5, below the national average, for value added in English. For value added in Maths they are at the national average. A similar picture emerges if we look at % of students making expected progress in English and Maths. In both categories the ARK and Harris chains are above the national average but the other five chains are below it. And overall the chains are again below the national average.

The only categories in which all the chains perform strongly are those, like Best 8 value added, where the use of GCSE equivalents boost the results. These have been much criticised by the government and it is interesting to see that the groups making most use of these equivalents are the chains that are being strongly encouraged by the same government.

The DfE data makes clear that government policies are driven by ideology and not by evidence. If it were evidence-based, there would be major doubts about conversion to academy status and even greater doubts about encouraging the chains.

Note: These figures include only those schools which have reached GCSEs. Around 15% of the chain academies had no GCSE results for 2011 and are not included in this analysis.
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Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 08/02/2012 - 09:14

Academies were established to raise attainment particularly for disadvantaged pupils. Yet Henry has shown how academies, and academy chains, are bolstering their results by an excessive reliance on “equivalent” examinations.

And one academy chain has struggled. Three academies sponsored by ULT were judged inadequate by Ofsted in 2009/10. The then government banned ULT from sponsoring academies as a result. Mr Gove, however, has rescinded the ban and poured fulsome praise on ULT.

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 08/02/2012 - 09:35

One academy sponsor, The Steiner Waldorf Schools Fellowship, is not included in Henry’s list because it sponsors too few schools to be classed as a chain. However, the Fellowship hopes to increase its number of state-maintained Steiner Schools. The Fellowship sponsors one academy, the Steiner Academy Hereford (3-16), and a Steiner free school has been approved in Frome. However, the results at the existing Steiner Academy should raise concerns about whether state funding of such schools should be encouraged.

The average number of qualifications taken by a pupil at the Steiner Academy Hereford in 2011 was 4.9. When the equivalent examinations are removed, the average number of GCSEs entered by each pupil was only 2.6. The average number of GCSE entries per pupil at the end of KS4 in 2010 was 7.79* according to the Schools Minister.

All children in mainstream schools should expect to have access to the same range of qualifications as their peers.

*Short courses counted as half a GCSE entry, double courses as two, and accredited iGCSEs were included

Jane Eades's picture
Wed, 08/02/2012 - 11:39

I have had a very quick look at the Ofsted reports for academies published in January 2012.

%ages OutstandingGoodSatis.Poor
Ofsted 2010/2011 11 46 38 6
Overall Effectiveness of 20 20 40 20
Academies Inspected (10):

This does not include section 8 inspections. The 2 rated outstanding were Harris academies, at least one of which was improving rapidly prior to its takeover.

Jane Eades's picture
Wed, 08/02/2012 - 11:47

The above results do not include the latest Ofsted failure, Birkdale High School.

charliehesketh's picture
Tue, 14/02/2012 - 18:19

Interesting ! As stated, a number of the chains were happy to take on schools that were really struggling, and it will take some time to get these on track. Concern about academies is often legitimate and people are at liberty to pursue these issues. Perhaps it's more important to work with the school models that are there and make them the best that they can be. The models are not likely to change much whatever Govt we have now/next. Schools can be great whether they're LEA or academy, let's make the main push to support them, regardless.

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 15/02/2012 - 09:09

You're correct, charliehesketh, all schools should be supported. However, this is just what the Government is NOT doing. It pushes academy conversion as the only answer to raise standards overall but even by the narrow measurement of raw exam results academies have not performed better than non-academies. At the same time it ignores the achievements of non-academy schools.

Any Government who really cared about the education (in its fullest sense) would be undertaking a full consultation with teaching professionals, parents, young people, employers and other interested parties about what education is for and how best this can achieved. Instead, the Government is promoting a narrow "solution" which will do nothing to raise achievement overall, will do particular harm to low ability or disadvantaged children, and open up the education "market" to for-profit providers.

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