The Mossbourne Fallacy

Henry Stewart's picture
Politicians from Michael Gove and David Cameron to Andrew Adonis and Tony Blair have been fond of using the example of Mossbourne to promote academies. The logic they try to promote is simple: Mossbourne is incredibly successful, Mossbourne is an Academy, therefore becoming an academy is the route to success.

Anybody with even  a basic knowledge of logic would spot the flaw here. The fact that Mossbourne is an academy does not meant this is the cause of its success. But we do now have the data to test if there is any basis to the claim. If it is the fact that it is an academy that is the cause of Mossbourne's success then we should expect to see similar success in many of the other 248 original Labour academies.

If you were hoping the fallacy this article was going to expose was the success of Mossbourne, I am afraid you will be disappointed. The data I am about to quote will only emphasise how uniquely successful Mossbourne has been.

Which high-FSM Schools Do Best?

In 2011 82% of Mossbourne's students achieved 5 GCSEs including English and Maths.  If we exclude GCSE equivalents, the figure falls but only to 76%. So let's look at similar schools to Mossbourne, which has 40% of its students on free school meals. How many other schools with 40% FSM achieved similar results?

The DfE data reveals that only one school in the country matches Mossbourne's results when you also use the FSM criteria. St Marylebone in Central London achieved 81% on the benchmark measure (GCSE only) with 56% of its students on free school meals. If we relax the criteria, include all schools with 30% or more on free school meals and look for those with at least 65% of students achieving the GCSE benchmark then six schools meet the criteria but Mossbourne is the only academy. The other five were - at the time of last summer's results - community, foundation or voluntary-aided schools. (Burlington Danes is the academy that comes nearest, with 64%.)

SchoolTypeFSM5 ACEM G
St MaryleboneVol56%81%
St AloysiusVol30%70%
Fulham CrossFound51%69%
Wembley HighFound30%68%


Which Schools with High Low Prior Achievement Do Best

An alternative approach is to look at the proportion of students on 'prior low achievement' (those achieving level 3 in Key Stage 2 at age 11). Prior achievement is, understandably, the best predictor of GCSE success. Overall only 6% of students on low prior achievement achieve 5 GCSEs including English and Maths. That compares to 56% of those with average prior achievement (level 4s)  and 94% of high prior achievement (level 5s).

Now Mossbourne has 25% of this students on prior low achievement. Mossbourne is the only school in the country that has at least 25% of prior low achievement and got 75% or more of students through the 5 GCSE benchmark. If we relax the criteria to those with 20% or more on low prior achievement and 65% achieving 5 GCSEs (including English and Maths) then we get 8 schools. Again Mossbourne is the only one that was an academy at the time of the GCSE results. Wembley High is possibly the most impressive, with 29% on prior low achievement and 67% achieving the benchmark.

SchoolTypePrior Low5 ACEM G
Seven KingsComm23%72%
Wembley HighFound29%68%
Five IslandsVol21%68%


Conclusion: Mossbourne's success is not due to it being an academy

This data confirms that Mossbourne has achieved remarkable results and is arguably one of the two best performing schools in the country. However if this success was due to it being an academy, we could expect to see many other schools now achieving similar results. In reality the most successful schools in the country were, at the point of last summer's GCSE exams, not academies but standard local comprehensive schools. It appears again that there is no evidence base to the government's move to academies.

What these schools do have in common is that most of them are in London. All the schools in the first table are in London and six of the eight schools in the second table are in London. Two previous posts (here and here) have highlighted the success of London schools. Whereas nationally 6% of students of low prior attainment achieved 5 GCSEs (including English and Maths), more than two-and-a-half-times that that proportion (16%) do so in London. The data makes clear the question to ask is not what we have to learn from academies, but what we have to learn from London schools.

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Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 30/03/2012 - 07:15

Schools that improve use similar methods which have nothing to do with academy status. This was the message of PriceWaterhouseCoopers in their 2008 report into academies. Yet this conclusion was ignored by the last government and continues to be brushed aside by the Coalition. The latter goes even further with the false rhetoric - it says that academy status is the only way to raise standards.

The Government push the mantra of competition as being a sure fire way to raise achievement (as measured by raw exam results) but, as Henry has pointed out, the majority of the successful schools above were in London. The question is, therefore, how far did the London Challenge contribute to London's success - and did the London Challenge encourage schools to compete or collaborate? And did the London Challenge say that academy conversion was necessary in order to raise attainment?

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Fri, 30/03/2012 - 09:53

The fallacy is that you 'role out success'.

Success happens when very able people are supported to a level where they are able to effectively respond to what their students and communities.

What policy makers then tend to do is to look at what the at school did and try to 'role out' their strategies to other schools. But the point is not what the school did, it is that those leading it took an intellectual journey into exploring and understand the needs of their students and their community and that they strategies they devised and the reasons for them were properly understood by all involved.......

Ricky-Tarr's picture
Fri, 30/03/2012 - 13:27

The fallacy is a straw man of your own devising.

David Cameron and Michael Gove do not pretend that Mossbourne is successful merely because it s an academy.

They point to Mossbourne because it demonstrates what an academy CAN do, if it gets its act together. Most significantly, Mossbourne demonstrates that the Education Establishment consensus view that "high-FSM = excuse for poor performance" is wrong.

Would Mossbourne have been so successful if it had been a Community School? Almost certainly not. The innovations introduced by Michael Wilshaw are precisely the sort of thing that school improvement advisers from LAs are ideologically dead set against.

The reason academy status helps is that it enables schools to get free of people like that. If LEAs were staffed by people like Wilshaw, there would be no need to opt out.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Fri, 30/03/2012 - 21:14

We had an LA which was staffed by people like Wilshaw. It crucified secondary education in our area due to that it is wise and appropriate to try and force every school to be like Mossbourne Academy despite the lack of funding / different wishes of the community / diverse needs of the children and the variety of skills of the staff.

Ricky unless you're in South Africa you're not on linkedin but do feel free to find me and link if you want to udnerstand more. In my picture on linked I've got long wavy brown hair and I'm looking slightly down to your left.

Henry Stewart's picture
Fri, 30/03/2012 - 13:39

Ricky, thats a curious comment. Which of Mossbourne's innovations do you think the LA would have opposed? I talk regularly with the Learning Trust and they have always been very supportive of everything Mossbourne has done and encouraged the other schools in the borough to visit it (as I have done) and learn from the good practice.

John Bolt's picture
Fri, 30/03/2012 - 14:32

Ricky, does not the performance of Wembley High, Fulham Cross, Mulberry and the rest show what schools that are not academies can do when they get their act together. No difference. The best people will do well whatever. The real question is what is the best way to support the average and here everyone from Stephen Twigg to Michael Wilshaw (except of course Michael Gove) thinks there needs to be a local support structure.

Henry Stewart's picture
Fri, 30/03/2012 - 14:48

Just checking the figures again, Sir John Cass in Tower Hamlets also deserves a mention. With 57% FSM, 65% of their students achieved 5 GCSEs including English and Maths (GCSE only). They didn't get included in the above post because I used >65% rather than >=65%.

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 30/03/2012 - 17:24

The data on the school performance tables illustrates how misleading it is to judge schools on the headline figure of how many pupils gained A*-C (or equivalent) including maths and English. Henry has stripped out the equivalent exams but this isn't easy for a parent to do.

It takes a lot of scratching of heads to decide which schools are effective or not when looking at the figures. Take Mossbourne, for example. The tables say 61% of Mossbourne's low attaining pupils gained the benchmark of 5 A*-C (or equiv) including Maths and English. That's a very high percentage - no other school in Henry's list gets near this. However, the average number of GCSEs entered by low attaining pupils is 5.9 and this yields an average point score (Best 8 GCSEs only) of 217.2.

Only 18% of Seven Kings low attainers reached the same benchmark BUT the average number of GCSEs entered by low attaining pupils was 7 yielding a point score of 227.6.

So, a far lower percentage of low-attaining pupils at Seven Kings reached the benchmark (including equivalents) than Mossbourne's BUT their average best 8 point score (GCSEs only) was higher. Which school, then, had the best GCSE results for low-attaining pupils?

At Wembley High, 42% of low attainers reached the benchmark (including equivalents) but the average number of GCSEs entered was 5.4 yielding an average point score (Best 8 GCSEs only) of 195.4, while at Whitmore 21% reached the benchmark (including equivalents) but the average number of GCSEs entered was 9.7 which resulted in an average point score (Best 8 GCSEs only) of 278.8. Again, which school achieved the best GCSE results for low-attaining pupils?

Leonard James's picture
Tue, 03/04/2012 - 15:39

The GCSE entries at Mossbourne - a wonderful spot. I wonder how this is reflected in the timetables of the students, my money is on intensive exam prep and multiple entries for key subjects such as English and Maths.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Fri, 06/04/2012 - 08:10

"The fallacy is a straw man of your own devising."
I'm watching your comments on the other thread and am wondering why you said this?

Richard's picture
Fri, 06/04/2012 - 10:02

"Wembley High is possibly the most impressive, with 29% on prior low achievement and 67% achieving the benchmark."

Yet my proofreader's eye sees the table showing 68% achieving the benchmark at Wembley High.

Richard's picture
Fri, 06/04/2012 - 10:04

"Would Mossbourne have been so successful if it had been a Community School? Almost certainly not."

That's just pure speculation, sheer guess work, completely devoid of any sound empirical basis.

Henry Stewart's picture
Fri, 06/04/2012 - 11:44

“Would Mossbourne have been so successful if it had been a Community School? Almost certainly not.”

Let's look at this from a logic and evidence point of view. If the causal factor in Mossbourne being so successful is that it is an academy, then lots of other academies should do as well. If it is other factors that academies or non-academies could implement (such as effective leadership, high expectations, tracking of every child, catch-up lessons, nurture groups - or uniforms and strong discipline) then the other leading schools would not necessarily be academies.

So let's see. Which is it? No other academies in these top schools so the evidence-based conclusion is pretty clear: Its not the fact that Mossbourne is an academy that made it so successful.

(And apologies, Richard, you are right on the 67% pt)

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 06/04/2012 - 12:32

"Academies are generally operating in similar ways to improving schools in the LA maintained sector, namely monitoring and improving the quality of lessons, ensuring appropriate continuing professional development, and tracking and monitoring pupil progress." So said PriceWaterhouseCoopers (PWC) as long ago as 2008. Where schools improved they were using similar methods which had nothing to do with academy status.

Ricky-Tarr's picture
Fri, 06/04/2012 - 12:50


Once again you are raising this Aunt Sally about academy status being the sole explanation. NO ONE says that.

However, being an academy does help schools adopt the sorts of practices that Mossbourne employs to make itself successful. Many of these practices are quite alien to LA types and the teacher unions. Here at LSN I believe I've read sneering comments about "boot camp" academies and so on.

As for evidence - we do know what happened to the school that used to sit on Mossbourne's site - Hackney Downs. That was run by the local authority, and they ran it into the ground.

Besides, as the chair of governors at a nearby community school, you should be able to answer the question yourself. You pay teachers at Stoke Newington higher salaries on average than Mossbourne does. But is the quality of teaching at Mossbourne not rather higher? Why haven't you adopted their methods?

The evidence is clear: your (broadly comparable) school doesn't do so well. Would Mossbourne do so well, if run like yours? Almost certainly not.

Henry Stewart's picture
Mon, 09/04/2012 - 13:02

Ricky, my understanding is that Mossbourne has kept to nationally agreed teachers pay and conditions. Their lower salary bill will be due to younger teachers.

We have indeed been to visit Mossbourne, as we have other schools, to see what we could learn. Sir Michael was most welcoming and showed a range of impressive approaches, some of which we have adapted. The only element we were shown that had to do with being an academy was the fact it meant "we have more money than you".

Stoke Newington School has many impressive features, including being one of 25 UK Schools of Creativity and being in the top 10% in the country for sixth form achievement (as measured using the ALPs standard), including being the best performing sixth form in Hackney on this measure.

Ricky-Tarr's picture
Fri, 06/04/2012 - 12:56

Oh..... and one further point on your methodology -

The ONLY community school that's included in your table above is Mulberry. That's an all-girls school, isn't it?

Hardly an appropriate one to choose to compare with Mossbourne, which has to deal with the sort of challenges that led local MP Diane Abbott to opt for the private sector.

Damir's picture
Wed, 06/06/2012 - 04:27

The education sseytm isn't what it should be but it's important to realise that it's an incredibly complex problem with so many things feeding into the mess. For example, one big factor is the exam culture and the importance placed on grades; clearly though this can't be the whole problem or, as you say, you'd be pushed to get an A or a B rather than a C. So try not to be too harsh on your teachers. They're probably as frustrated as you are, if in a different way.Unfortunately you're just going to have to deal with the terrible classroom education until it's over, but that doesn't mean you can't make an impact yourself on your boredom with all this free time. I went to a school that gave me piles of homework all the time at A-level and so I didn't really have the time to read, and by read I don't just mean fiction on your ebook reader or whatever but serious books that fill the gap in your education. I also made the mistake of not doing this during my GCSEs and instead spent the free time messing about with computers; it might be fun but it doesn't really expand your mind at all.Now, it sounds like you think academic study is important and you want to pursue it (correct me if I'm wrong), so you'll probably end up going to university, and without sounding too cliched you really do have responsibility for your own learning. You need to be motivated to do the work yourself or you won't get anywhere. But if you started taking this attitude now you'd be better prepared than the likes of me were when the time comes. Seize this opportunity! Start learning yourself and figuring out what it is that you're actually interested in, and relegate your lessons to a way of getting the certificates you need to go further (again, if that's what you want to do). I wish I had.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Fri, 06/04/2012 - 15:50

"being an academy does help schools adopt the sorts of practices that Mossbourne employs to make itself successful."
Not really Ricky. If you substitute 'money' for 'being an academy the sentence becomes much more true. Substituting - 'working in a context where it is clear Mossbourne's practices are the most appropriate ones for the local community' works too.

"Many of these practices are quite alien to LA types and the teacher unions."
Are you capable of explaining why that is Ricky or are you one of the people who would simply label the LAs and the unions as being ignorant extremist communist types rather than engaging with the actual issues?

"Here at LSN I believe I’ve read sneering comments about “boot camp” academies and so on."
Where have you read those Ricky? I've been involved in discussion along these lines which have been respectful of what schools with extremely robust systems of discipline can and can't do which have been sensitive to both their benefits and their disadvantages. I'd be interested to look at the discussions you've been reading.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Fri, 06/04/2012 - 16:07

Was that the same report where they made the clear recommendation that the head of any academy be in post at least a year and preferably 18 months before it opens Janet?

That finding was a great relief to those of us who've been through schools reorganisations which have been too rapidly forced through and have seen the reality of the hell which is created when the timescales are too compressed and the academy opens without all the basics (such as a staffing structure) having been consulted and properly appointed.

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