City Challenge was more successful than academy programme, researchers have found

Janet Downs's picture
“We have no evidence to suggest that the change to academy status was more effective than a continued period of support through KTS [Keys to Success]/PTA [Pathways to Achievement].”

This was the conclusion of a Department for Education report into the City Challenge programme published in June 2012. KTS and PTA were strategies within the programme aimed, like the sponsored academies programme, at underperforming schools. The researchers found that underperforming schools that became academies “did not then improve significantly more than those that did not become academies.”

It is hardly surprising, then, that the DfE decided not to publicise the report but tucked it away in a remote corner of the DfE website. The DfE news page is full of press releases about free schools, academies, studio schools and so on but publicity about this major research is missing.

Fortunately, the BBC published a useful summary. It points out that results rose fastest in schools which were part of the City Challenge programme. And pupil attainment in underperforming schools supported by City Challenge improved “significantly more” than in other weak schools, including sponsored academies.

The BBC quoted the lead author of the research, Professor Merryn Hutchings, "What we are showing is that there is an effective way to improve schools through support and expert advice as happened with City Challenge. The current government's policy is to turn weak schools into sponsored academies. Our data suggests that this has been effective only in those schools that had previously been supported through City Challenge."

A key strategy of City Challenge was providing external experts to work alongside existing head teachers to assess the individual needs of each school and to devise tailored support programmes which included mentoring by head teachers from better performing schools.

The BBC asked the DfE for a response and a spokesperson said the Government was “building on the best of what we had before.” It cited the Pupil Premium as one strategy for supporting disadvantaged pupils and said the DfE was “also transforming the worst-performing schools with new leadership as academies and free schools.” Quite apart from the DfE spokesperson’s ignorance about free schools – they are new schools not ones that were previously underperforming – the spokesperson didn’t address the implications of the research. It is not necessary to change schools into academies for them to succeed. In fact, the research showed that academy status was irrelevant.

In 2008, PriceWaterhouseCoopers (PwC) published a report into academies which showed that when schools improved they employed similar methods which had nothing to do with whether a school was an academy or not (see FAQs above). PwC found that having outstanding leaders and stability in leadership was “critical” to success. It concluded “There is insufficient evidence to make a definitive judgement about the Academies as a model for school improvement” and “the process of change was complex and varied and could not be ascribed to a “simple uniform ‘Academy effect’”.

This was ignored in 2008 and continues to be ignored today. The Government persists in its blind allegiance to academy conversion as a magic bullet for school improvement but it is not. Yet millions of pounds are being spent on converting schools into academies, by force if necessary, when academy status is no guarantee that educational standards will rise.

Deception about academies has been going on since they began – it is still continuing.

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