"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.