Evidence underpinning Gove’s claim about converter academies driving up standards does not exist, DfE admits

Janet Downs's picture
"Academy converters and free schools are helping to drive up standards for all children, particularly the most disadvantaged," Mr Gove told the Education Select Committee on 31 January 2012. On 9th March I submitted a Freedom of Information Request asking for the evidence which underpinned this statement.

On 2nd May I received a belated reply. The Department for Education (DfE) appeared not to know the difference between sponsored and converter academies because the reply spoke only of sponsored academies. I responded and asked the DfE to send the evidence about converter academies.

On 21 June I received a reply which supposedly enclosed an attachment. This was missing. The DfE responded promptly and sent the attachment the next day.

The attachment, downloadable from the FoI response dated 22 June, contained very little about converter academies. It contained much international evidence about how autonomous schools tend to perform better. This is well-known and undisputed. However, the DfE didn’t mention that in 2009 the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) found in that UK was already among just four countries which gave the greatest autonomy to schools.

The DfE cited evidence about how well US charter schools were performing but missed the Stanford University CREDO report of 2009 which looked at 16 states and found that “just 17% of charters were providing superior education opportunities for their students, half were no different from traditional schools and a third delivered results that were worse than public schools”.

The attachment admitted that the performance of Swedish free schools was “more difficult to assess”. The best evidence the DfE could find pointed to “small improvements in areas with more free schools”. The DfE unsurprisingly did not cite Wiborg, S (2010), “Swedish Free Schools: Do they work?” which warned it was unwise to apply the Swedish free school model to England – Swedish free schools had increased segregation in a homogeneous society so it was likely that the policy would have a more disruptive effect in a divided society like England. Wiborg found that the Swedish initiative (using for-profit private providers) had been expensive and had not led to significant learning gains overall.

Finally, the DfE provided “early performance evidence” about converter academies. This mentioned academies open for two years but these would have been sponsored, not converter, academies. It said the results of the 25 converter academies which had been open long enough to have Key Stage 4 performance data in 2011 had a higher proportion than the state school average (58.3%) of pupils reaching the benchmark 5+ A*-C including Maths and English. This is not surprising – the 25 were high-performing schools before conversion and their results would be expected to exceed those of a group of schools comprising the entire performance range.

The bottom line is that the evidence to support Mr Gove’s claim that free schools and converter academies are helping to drive up standards does not exist.

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Ricky-Tarr's picture
Fri, 29/06/2012 - 13:45


Sarah's picture
Fri, 29/06/2012 - 13:53

Surely the time to produce evidence demonstrating that a policy is likely to succeed is BEFORE you spend an enormous amount of time and money reforming the education system. So much for evidence based policy making.

Ricky-Tarr's picture
Fri, 29/06/2012 - 17:10

There's plenty of evidence it is "likely to succeed". Janet's moan is that there's no peer reviewed paper about something that's only just started.

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 29/06/2012 - 17:23

sarah - not only did Gove use selective evidence from the US and Sweden to support what he wanted to do ie make schools "independent" of local authorities and thereby make it easier for them to be eventually run by profit-making firms (or not-for-profits with a trading arm, or not-for-profits who outsource to profit-making firms) but he tells the Education Select Committee that evidence exists when it does not.

Does he think the members of the Education Select Committee are fools?

It's laughable that some people equate evidence with an opinion that the policy might succeed.

Allan Beavis's picture
Sat, 30/06/2012 - 13:03

Quite right Sarah.

There is no evidence "yet"? How long do we have to wait for something that has failed in countries that adopted this way before Gove did?

The problem Gove has is that those countries which have versions of free schools/acadmies - notably Sweden and The United - have failed to improve standards across the board. Worse, the in-built mechanism which allows these types of so-called "stand-alone" schools to have much - or even all - of their operations handed over to for-profit making companies has led to corruption and litigation in the United States and for Sweden to admit that the bottom line of proft making has compromised quality of education.

Since these type of schools have been around for two decades, it is doubtful whether the real policy was to improve education on a mass scale since the evidence is that acadmies/free schools are more likely to be an expensive failure. It looks more likely that Gove is ideologically driven to abuse the education system in order to consolidate his own political power.

In this respect, he is as bad as his ex-boss Murdoch abusing the media to influence the political landscape.

Fiona Millar's picture
Fri, 29/06/2012 - 17:52

He doesn't talk about Sweden much these days though does he? Not surprising since they perform less well than we do in the PISA tables. Are there many free schools in Singapore?

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Fri, 29/06/2012 - 18:40

Could you point us to some of this evidence Ricky? Common sense would expect to see some benefits for schools in the short term but a hell of a mess very shortly and well within the life of this government.

Essentially the idea was to get schools out of state control but Gove hasn't managed it has he? They're still under the same systems of inspection and narrow high stakes assessment as all other state schools so nothing really changed. All that happened was that for many schools which haven't got good chains behind them the safety nets were removed, so when thing start to go wrong they are likely go much more seriously wrong than they would have before.

Janet Downs's picture
Sat, 30/06/2012 - 08:26

44% of governors who took part in TES/NGA* said they were "unsure" whether academy conversion had improved education standards in their school. 30% said it had no impact on standards. 26% said conversion had improved standards.

But how far can we be sure that academy conversion is solely responsible for improved standards in those academies which reported a rise? Correlation isn't causation. PriceWaterhouse Coopers pointed out in their 2008 report on academies that when schools improve they use similar methods which had nothing to do with a school's status. When standards in a school rise (or fall) it's important to know the context: change of staff, change in intake, different exams being taken, different teaching methods and so on.


*National Governors' Association

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