“78 per cent of schools chose to become an academy in part because of a perception that they would receive additional funding.” This was revealed in a survey conducted by the Schools Network and Reform
. When pushed, however, slightly less than four in ten heads said money was the main reason. Nevertheless, it was the most popular incentive. The remaining six in ten cited diverse reasons for conversion ranging from the rather woolly “General ethos of educational autonomy” (just over two in ten) and “General sense of financial autonomy” (one in ten) to “Flexibility over pay and conditions” (less than one in a hundred).
The survey’s results were published in a report entitled, “Plan A+: Unleashing the potential of academies”, which allegedly exploded “anti-academy myths”. The report was co-authored by the Schools Network
and the think-tank, Reform
, which both claim to be independent. But the Schools Network is the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust (SSAT) an organisation which hopes to support academies - a move which has attracted claims of conflict of interest
. Reform is committed to “liberalising the public sector, breaking monopoly and extending choice”. Its research director, Dale Bassett
, one of the authors of Plan A+, wrote in 2010 that profit-making education providers should “open their deep pockets here in England”. Bassett’s hymn of praise to academy “freedoms”
in TES attracted a withering response from Sir Peter Newsam.
The authors, then, are about as independent as cocoa producers publishing a report citing the health benefits of eating a chocolate bar every day.
Nevertheless, the report contains some useful information. There’s a succinct time-line showing the changes which led to English schools being one of only four countries which gave the greatest amount of autonomy to schools by 2009 (OECD
). This piece of information, however, doesn’t appear in the time-line possibly because it would detract from the report’s argument that English schools need even more autonomy in order to “innovate to raise standards”.
The report cited City Technology Colleges as pre-academy “autonomous institutions” which “received widespread criticism from vested interests.” It used a report (2007) published by SSAT itself which claimed that opponents saw CTCs as “selective”. These fears appear to have been justified. Only three of the original fifteen CTCs remain – the rest have converted to academies – and none is supposed to be selective. But only two of the CTCs/ex-CTCs had a 2011 GCSE cohort with a comprehensive intake: Djanogly City Academy and Leigh Technology Academy. The remaining thirteen had very few low-attaining pupils – down to 1% in two cases. The report praised the GCSE pass rate of “around 90%” at Harris City Technology College, Crystal Palace (now Harris City Academy
). What it didn’t say is that the 2011 GCSE cohort comprised 56% high attainers, 40% middle and 4% low.
Reform/SSAT is keen on accountability and quoted OECD remarks about how pupil achievement data used for accountability purposes can improve attainment. However, the authors disregarded OECD* advice that there was too much emphasis on raw results in England which could lead to grade inflation, teaching to the test, “gaming” and neglecting important non-cognitive skills. OECD* pointed out that accountability is more than just publishing league tables.
User choice is another buzz expression favoured in the report. It quoted research which shows user choice in education is advantageous and raises results. There is indeed much research that shows this – but there’s also a lot that shows the opposite. OECD* looked at the evidence linking user choice with education outcomes and found the evidence was “mixed”. OECD noted that some high-performing countries like Finland offer little user choice. Recent Harvard
research also considered available research and concluded: “Market-based reforms such as school choice or school vouchers have, at best, a modest impact on student achievement…This suggests that competition alone is unlikely to significantly increase the efficiency of the public school system.”
The report tried very hard to show that academies are part of wide network of co-operating schools. It cited Challenge Partners
as an example of such co-operation. But Challenge Partners doesn’t just comprise academies but a wide range of other types of schools. Dale Bassett, in his TES article, wrote that trailblazing schools were already “networking and collaborating on an unprecedented scale.” If they are, they’re probably not converter academies, because only 3% of them are supporting weaker schools
as they are supposed to do.
Conclusion: the report from allegedly independent organizations is biased in favour of academies – its title alone demonstrates this. It refuses to acknowledge that UK schools already had a greater level of autonomy in 2009 than schools in most other countries. Instead, the authors push the idea that it is only by converting to academy status that schools can have the “freedoms” which will raise standards. But only 1.8% of heads chose opting out of the National Curriculum as the main motive for conversion. The report conceded that two fifths (39 per cent) of academies believe that the National Curriculum already allowed them sufficient freedom to innovate without the need to convert and one head said he would have made changes in any case: “Freedom from the NC is somewhat illusory when Ofsted are likely to judge us on it.”
One final thing: it’s well known that free schools don’t have to employ qualified teachers. According to the Reform/SSAT report, all academies have “full freedom over appointment of staff – except the school’s Special Educational Needs Coordinator (SENCO) and Looked After Children Lead, who must have QTS or equivalent”. This gives the lie to Mr Gove’s constant assertions about the importance of having well-trained teachers – this requirement only seems to pertain to non-academy schools.
*Chapter on English Education in OECD Economic Survey UK 2011. Not available freely on internet but details of how to obtain a copy are here
CORRECTION 11 April 2012 The original post said that the Schools Network sponsored Priory School in Suffolk. This was a factual error and has been removed. We thank the Schools Network for drawing our attention to the error and apologise for the mistake.