Using evidence from Labour’s sponsored academies to justify Government’s programme of converter academies is “step too far”, says academic.

Janet Downs's picture
Professor Stephen Machin, co-author of a London School of Economics (LSE) report on Labour's sponsored academies, has expressed annoyance about the way the findings have been hijacked by the present Government to justify its policy of academy conversion.

Writing in the Guardian, Professor Machin said, “our evidence on Labour academies has frequently been marshalled in support of the new academies programme, usually (though not always) without offering the caveat that the new academies are rather different.” He explained that Labour’s academies had been established from underperforming secondary schools with the aim of raising achievement among disadvantaged pupils. Converter academies, on the other hand, tended to be better-than-average schools. The Government was also applying the report’s findings, which painted “a reasonably optimistic picture of Labour academies”, to primary schools, but equating primary schools to secondary ones was not comparing like with like. Professor Machin said it was too early to discover whether academy conversion had any effect on educational outcomes.

Professor Machin welcomed the call for rigorous evidence which could be thoughtfully applied. However, he disapproved of the way the Government had used his report. He ended with a warning: “And one thing is clear: researchers, policy-makers and the media need to be clearer and think carefully about how they make practical use of research evidence.”

In other words, meticulous evidence produced by reputable, impartial organisations should not be regarded as data which can be misrepresented to support particular policies. It should be carefully read and properly analysed.

Stephen Machin is professor of economics, University College London and research director at the centre for economic performance, London School of Economics

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Rebecca Hanson's picture
Fri, 20/04/2012 - 16:18


It's like saying Scottish Academies are good therefore if we put the word 'Academy' after the name of a school it will be like a Scottish Academy.

Ricky-Tarr's picture
Fri, 20/04/2012 - 16:35

There's an interesting point in Prof Machin's article:

We saw the most significant improvements in schools that made the biggest shift in terms of autonomy, for example, those that changed from a community school into an academy.

The autonomy thing matters.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Fri, 20/04/2012 - 19:36

Absolutely. The Labour academies were successful where they were the innovative ones - empowered to develop in ways which best fitted their communities and the skills of their staff.

The problems occurred when politicians decided to 'roll out' the success. Conclusions about how schools should operated don't roll out in that way. It's not just that they were created for their own context and unlikely to be a good fit for another context, it is that in the process of developing and interpreting their vision as they create their schools the leadership and staff learn a great deal along the way, become more highly skilled in running the school they are creating and taking ownership of their vision in a way which gives it credibility.

The later Labour academies were a nightmare because they weren't empowered in this way. Typically they existed because a school needed a rebuild (because it was becoming dangerous) and becoming and academy was the only way it could get it.

Because Labour was focusing only on its pet projects it neglected to develop policies which dealt with the very real problems schools were facing. They learnt from their mistakes just in time to develop policies which would never see the light of day due to their being shut down by an even worse bunch of ..........s

Under Labour things generally improved because there was a lot more money around so more good stuff could get done in schools, because society recovered from the 80s and because the 'buy the Tory vote by subsidising their kids out of state schools' policies ended. There's more to it than that of course and I'm happy to talk about the details of many of the specific projects which were funded did have a positive effect as well as the ones which didn't and the ones which had mixed effects.

Sarah's picture
Fri, 20/04/2012 - 23:27

There is a huge variation nationally in the extent to which schools operated autonomously - some local authorities were (and are) very light touch, devolving the majority of funding to schools. Autonomy by and of itself isn't a magic bullet which is why academy conversion is a complete red herring. What would have made much more sense would have been to look at the areas where local authorities had this sort of relationship with its schools and rolled that out - instead of casting schools adrift in an unaccountable, unsupported fragemented market.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Sat, 21/04/2012 - 09:37

The two biggest barriers to appropriate professional autonomy are Ofsted and narrow high stakes assessment.

Ofsted needs to be brought into line with the law and the best practices in inspection and regulation which our other regulators use so that they are both more effective than Ofsted's in driving improvement and their modes of operation are intelligently configured to respect the professional autonomy of the organisations they are inspecting.

The barriers to autonomy posed by narrow, high stakes assessment can be significantly overcome through the adoption of modern ICT empowered systems of professional tracking and accreditation.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Sat, 21/04/2012 - 10:17

If only Michael Gove would listen to what I'm saying in detail we could deliver these things (or have them credibly in place to the electorate) by the end of this parliament.

But he needs to sort out his current mess first or he won't be in post after the issue with primary places blows up in September and the issues with Ofsted escalate. To do this he needs to (at least temporarily) restrict the Free Schools program to supporting the opening of those schools for which there is a very clear demand and for which there is at least a reasonable degree of LA support. He needs to do this both because it makes sense and also to release staff to work on the primary places issue. It's too late to hire them.

He needs to instruct a team of people now to work systematically with the LAs - demanding they very rapidly submit their plans for coping with the demand for primary places in September. His teams of people need to work to see where there are problems and to help the authorities with problems resolve them efficiently and effectively wherever LAs are being reasonable and coherent and no matter what the 'ideology' of the solution. So long as it's practical he must support it. There isn't time to argue.

There may be a very small number of LAs who aren't interested in doing a good job but he should pull them in for detailed discussions. He should not proactively seek to discredit them (keep that until after things fail in their area but do everything possible to avoid failure happening). The more he invites potential problems in the likely they are to be fixed both because they may need complex solutions which can then be achieved through attention and dialogue and because those who are invited in know they will cop the blame if they are genuinely getting support and things are not fixed for reasons which are their fault.

He should also suspend the actions of Ofsted in cases where they are not very clearly needed or invited in pending the outcome of the Judicial Review which is likely to become an Independent Commission and he should bring in the best legal brains from the HSE to advise him on best practice and the law surrounding inspection and regulation.

I'm on the Lib Dems' Education Association committee if he wants to get hold of me or I'm very easy to find on linkedin.

Leonard James's picture
Sat, 21/04/2012 - 06:35

I've never set much store by Machin & Vernoit's paper. It is useful in as far as it identifies a pattern it tells us nothing about the causes of that pattern. I have serious concerns about how autonomy has manifested itself in academies and indeed other types of school.

K Campbell's picture
Sat, 21/04/2012 - 08:45

Good post. I would also add that 'securing' a grade in the controlled assessments or coursework part of th GCSE English exam is another point that is worth investigating and that you can obtain an outstanding rating by OFSTED by concentrating on three subject areas. e.g. Harris academy Falconwood and others in the Harris chain.

I heard on that the DfE was going to introduce a 5 A*-C with English, Maths and Science figure, but academy leaders complained that they would be blown out of the water because it is not so easy to game Science.

I wonder if anyone has produced a report comparing the 5 A*-C with English, Maths and Science figures of academies and other schools.

Janet Downs's picture
Sat, 21/04/2012 - 09:08

Thanks, Leonard. I raised concerns about correlation being mistaken for causation in one of my comments on the thread below which discussed the LSE report when it was first published. I'd be interested in your views about the control group used by Machin and Vernoit. This comprised schools which were shortly to become academies ie under-performing schools. It seemed to me to be odd to compare academies and non-academies with a control group of under-performing schools - the latter group would have had lower results than the former.

The academies and neighbouring non-academies both performed better but this may not necessarily be due to the changed status of the academies. The raised results may have been due to numerous factors some negative - grade inflation, teaching to the test, gaming - or some positive - the strategies found in all improving schools by PricewaterhouseCoopers in 2008 (although PWC didn't specify what these were).

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