Exploding the Academies Myth

Henry Stewart's picture
It is a common assumption among journalists that academies have been hugely successful in improving school results. Sadly the data does not support this belief. Martin Kettle, in Thursday’s Guardian, is the latest journalist to make the claim:

“The overall track record of academies is so clearly successful that it becomes perversely reactionary to focus on the failures, albeit genuine ones. When groups like the New Schools Network or the Future Leaders trust can show that academy results are still improving at 8% a year, or when Teach First partner schools can claim that their results are improving at twice the national rate, a certain openness to the facts should be the order of the day. This is less left-right than reform versus the status quo.”

I agree with Martin on the importance of being fact-based but this paragraph is sadly lacking in  that regard. Of the three sources quoted in support of his claim for academy success, two are not about academies at all. The Future Leaders link claims an 8% rise for schools whose Head is a Future Leader. The Teach First reference is to schools, both academies and non-academies, using Teach First teachers.

The New Schools Network does claim an 8% a year improvement but gives no basis for the claim at all – and doesn’t even explain what has grown by 8%. To use an unsubstantiated claim by a pressure group, with a clear viewpoint in favour of academies, as hard facts is very odd journalism.

The Real Data on School Performance

The actual comparison between academies and non-academies has been well covered on this site, based on the Department for Education's release of school-by-school data earlier this year. The DfE is clear that the growth in academy results, on the key benchmark of 5 GCSEs including English and Maths, was 5.7% in 2011 (not 8%). No figures are yet available for 2012 but, given the overall fall in results, any rise for academies is certain to be lower.

It is true that this figure, 5.7%, is higher than for non-academies. However this apparent better performance disappears if you simply compare similar schools.

If you take only those academies previously below the benchmark figure of 35%, then you do get a rise last year of 8%. Pretty impressive, until you run the analysis for non-academies below 35% and get exactly the same 8% rise. (More here.)

It is often assumed that our schools are divided between one set of strong and steadily improving schools and others that are stuck in permanent under-achievement. A House of Commons report earlier this year showed this picture to be false. For schools with 2010 results above 60% there was, on average, no growth at all in 2011 in the GCSE benchmark. For those below 35% the average growth in 2011 was above 8%. Academies include more schools in that under 35% group and so will appear to do better if compared to a group that includes schools already achieving 60%, 70%, 80% or more. But compare them to similar schools and they do at best as well as the non-academies.

This is a great good-news story. The worst-performing schools are seeing their results transformed. Over the last three years the results are even more impressive. Academies under 35% in 2008 saw average growth in results of 18.6% from 2008 to 2011. Non-academies under 35% in 2008 saw growth of 19.1% in results from 2008 to 2011.

Let's Celebrate the Success of All Improving Schools

The reality is that local authorities, faced with schools with poor GCSE results, have taken different routes. Those who have gone down the academy route, like Hackney, have seen success. But those which have chosen not to do so, like Tower Hamlets, have seen similar success. All the data here refers to the original Labour academies, not the recent conversions (for which analysis will only be possible once the DfE releases school-by-school data for 2012). This means that the growth achieved by non-academies equalled that of academies even though the academies received huge amounts of funding and were often brand new schools.

Let's celebrate these real successes but recognise that they are not about school structure, as non-academies have improved as fast as academies. Instead they are about factors like effective leadership, high expectations and great teaching and leading. Well done to all the teachers and students involved in that change.

This analysis has been the subject of much debate over the past nine months and has been shown to be very robust. In February the Observer used it for its article "Academy schools attain fewer good GCSEs, study shows" which includes the note that "a DfE spokesman did not deny the accuracy of the statistics".

(For the full set of Local Schools Network articles on academy and non-academy results, see here)

Data note: This is before taking account of schools 'gaming' the system, using the GCSE equivalents (such as Btecs) that Gove derides. Take out these equivalents and academy results in that under 35% group fall by 13%. The non-academy results fall by only 10%. This indicates that the 8% growth in the  non-academies is more solidly based than the rise in academies and probably represents (though the comparative figures are not available for previous years) not equal but better performance.
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Mr_Chas's picture
Sat, 15/09/2012 - 17:30

There is an argument, that the boroughs who have not gone down the academy route have dragged their standards up BECAUSE of the academies in the neighbouring boroughs. I am not sure how this could be proven / disproven. It is, of course, how the model is supposed to work...

Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 16/09/2012 - 11:55

Mr Chas - PriceWaterhouse Cooper looked at academies in 2008 and found that where academies were improving (and not all were), they were using similar methods to those found in improving LA schools. So, any improvement was not down to academy status but because of other factors which were also present in improving non-academy schools. (See FAQs above for more details).

The London School of Economics (LSE) report into the academy "effect" found that when academies improved so did neigbouring schools. However, the research didn't consider other possible strategies for improving schools (eg leadership as cited by PWC 2008) which could have been present in both the academies and their neighbours. In any case, one of the authors has said that his research can't be used to justify the conversion of already successful schools or primary schools into academies.


For a critique of the LSE report see:


Rebecca Hanson's picture
Sun, 16/09/2012 - 10:06

Clearly spending money improves results.

Has anyone attempted to strip this effect out from the data on academies?

Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 16/09/2012 - 11:46

Way back in January Channel 4’s FactCheck wrote: “a dose of healthy scepticism appears to be needed whenever ministers seek to use statistics to prove the supposed superiority of the academy model.”

Perhaps this should apply to journalists and commentators who talk up the supposed success of the academy model.


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