Government spin re academies is not supported by DfE report. Is this why the report has not been publicised?

Janet Downs's picture
The recent Department for Education (DfE) report into the effectiveness of the City Challenge programme found it was difficult to isolate factors which lead to school improvement. But the Government insist that the only way to improve school results is academy conversion, by force or intimidation if necessary. But the Evaluation of the City Challenge Programme said:

“More radical approaches to school improvement that attempt to change the whole system or implement structural solutions are increasingly used. These include the free schools movement in Sweden; Charter schools in the US; and the academies programme in England. The underlying rationale of these approaches is that introducing new types of schools that are more autonomous, free of local authority or direct government control, will enable greater parental choice. This, it is argued, will inject market competition into the education system, promoting educational innovation, and thus drive up standards/school performance for all pupils, including those attending other schools. Evidence about Swedish free schools and US charter schools is mixed (CREDO, 2009; Allen, 2010; Bunar, 2010; Zimmer et al., 2009). Evaluations of the academies programme in England (e.g. PriceWaterhouseCoopers, 2008; the National Audit Office, 2010; Machin and Vernoit, 2011) all report improvements in pupil attainment, but have not been able to disentangle the factors have led to the improvement. The more complex the initiative, the more difficult it becomes to disentangle what aspects of it have brought about change.”

The report confirms what Ofsted found – that academy status isn’t necessary to improve results. And Henry’s research for this site showed that sponsored academies performed worse than similar non-academy schools (see faqs above). But the DfE continues to promote the myth that academies and free schools are superior to other types of state schools. And a report which shows that another initiative, the City Challenge, was more effective than academy status seems to have been buried.

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Ricky-Tarr's picture
Fri, 12/10/2012 - 10:47

Academies are relatively new, particularly converter academies.

Of course it isn't therefore possible to have to hand scientific proof that they will work.

You point to recently published research into the effectiveness of City Challenge. That research was not available to ministers when City Challenge was launched. They proceeded with City Challenge on the basis of their own judgment that it would be of benefit. The academies programme is rather similar. It's a judgment call.

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 12/10/2012 - 12:45

Now there's a suprise! Research about the effectiveness of the City Challenge programme wasn't available when City Challenge was launched. Well, it wouldn't be, would it? It would take an exceptional fortune teller to publish research into a programme before that programme actually existed.

The Government justifies its academy conversion programme by citing the alleged success of sponsored academies. But reports have found that when schools improve they use similar methods irrespective of academy status and/or academy status can't be viewed as a magic bullet for school improvement. Read faqs above for summaries of PriceWaterhouseCoopers 2008, National Audit Office 2010, Sutton Trust 2007 and Birmingham University. Look at what Ofsted said about the qualities of good and outstanding schools - academy status isn't one of them:

And even a report which painted a "relatively optimistic" picture of sponsored academies can't be used to support academy conversion, said one of the report's authors:

But then deception about academies has been going on since Lord Adonis began the sponsored academy programme as highlighted here:

Ricky-Tarr's picture
Fri, 12/10/2012 - 13:25

Now there’s a suprise! Research about the effectiveness of the City Challenge programme wasn’t available when City Challenge was launched. Well, it wouldn’t be, would it? It would take an exceptional fortune teller to publish research into a programme before that programme actually existed.

Hurrah! You get it, at long last.

So, now will you stop criticizing Michael Gove for proceeding with the academies programme without having a corpus of magically prophetic research to prove it works.

For months you have been going on about there being no clear evidence that academies are better, despite relatively few academies having had a fully academy-trained KS4 cohort to be judge improvement by.

Now, if you can contain yourself for a few years until the evidence is in, you may get a pleasant surprise. :-)

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 12/10/2012 - 13:40

Ricky - as I keep saying, it is the Government which is justifying its conversion programme with "evidence" about the supposed success of the sponsored academy programme. At the same time, despite warnings from independent reports (see faqs above) that academy status should NOT be regarded as a magic bullet, the Government ignores important insights by PwC and Ofsted in particular - that improving schools share similar qualities and pursue similar strategies. Academy status is NOT one of these.

So, why is the Government persisting with its mantra that changing the structure of a school will somehow improve results when the evidence shows this is not happening (see Henry's research - comparable non-academy schools as a whole performed better than comparable academies)? Why is it ignoring evidence that improving schools employ similar strategies whether they're academies or not? Why does it hide away reports that say other intiatives, like the City Challenge, were more successful than establishing academies?

Allan Beavis's picture
Fri, 12/10/2012 - 14:35

Plenty of evidence that Academies and free schools don't work from US and Sweden so the question remains what motivated Gove to adopt these models when they have done little to improve standards and both countries have not leap frogged to the top of international league tables? It's Gove who is obssessed with rigour and rankings - why plump for a model that has failed on both those counts? Is the real agenda privatization?

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 12/10/2012 - 14:49

Allan - last night's BBC Radio 4 documentary "The Report" investigated free schools. It contained an interview with Bertil Ostberg, the State Secretary for Education in Sweden. Ostberg was one of the pioneers of free schools in Sweden but is now concerned that most of the free schools, which can be profit-making in Sweden, are in the hands of just three big companies rather than being run by small groups of parents, teachers etc. He said that an inquiry was being set up to investigate the long-term commitment of these companies and the Government wanted assurances that the owners would not sell on the schools for short-term profit.

For more information about the programme see:

Will's picture
Sat, 13/10/2012 - 10:35

'But while I’ve been inspired by Singapore, Finland and New Orleans another success story has perhaps had an even greater influence on my thinking. And it’s one that’s closer to home. London......

The last Government launched the London Challenge in 2003. There were several elements to this but the three most important were:

Sponsored Academies

The use of outstanding schools to mentor others

A focus on improving the quality of teaching – especially through Teach First.....

Academies, though, are only part of what made the London Challenge successful.

The leadership strand of the programme focused on identifying “system leaders” to support weaker schools. This proved extremely successful......

The third key strand of the London Challenge was a focus on increasing the number of outstanding teachers through professional development and recruitment of the best graduates via Teach First.......

OECD’s head of education Andreas Schleicher put it in a speech last year “many countries have shifted the emphasis from academic preparation to preparing professionals in schools instead. Teachers now get into classrooms earlier, spend more time on-site in schools, and get more and better support in the process”......

.....if London’s improvement has taught us anything it is that putting schools in control of their own destiny is the key to success.'

Allan Beavis's picture
Fri, 12/10/2012 - 11:27

Academies and Free Schools may be new concepts in the UK, but they have been tried and tested in Sweden and, over a longer term of 20+ years in the United States, and found severely lacking in that overall achievement and standards have not been raised. What Gove's SPADS and the New Schools Network have been doing is advancing small pockets of achievement in charter schools in small areas such as New Orleans and New York, arguing that this is evidence of charter school success. But even in these areas, the "miracle" is disputed. For example, in New York the methodology in collecting data used by Caroline Hoxby was deeply flawed, so there was no dramatic closing of the achievement gap as claimed by Gove and Rachel Wolf. In New Orleans, the poster city for the Reform Movement, much is made of the transformation in a city with high levels of poverty. Gove never admits that post-Hurricane, the majority of poor families never returned.

Let's put the district of New Orleans in its true context.It is actually one of the lowest-performing in a low-performing state (Louisiana). Before the Jindal takeover of the state board of education and the state education department, New Orleans was ranked as 69th of 70 districts in the state by test scores. And 79% of its highly-praised charters received either a D or an F from the state.

There are excellent charter schools in the US just as there are excellent Academies here but neither Charters nor Academies can claim they have transformed attainment across the board. Far from it.

Given that Swedish Free Schools and American Charters have not transformed the education landscape, the question is why did Gove and this government put such massive resources and ideological focus on importing a model which, despite the efforts of spin, have not improved education in Sweden or the US? There is no miracle in free schools. There was a miracle in Finland, which eschews everything the so-called Reformers here and in the US cling on to.

The scientific proof can be found in the failure of the US. So the chances of Academies working here, particularly given that philanthropic funds are not open to us in the extravagant way philanthropy bolsters a number of Charter chains, are so slim that it is high time Gove explained why he has imposed a system which stands more chance of failing than succeeding.

Guest's picture
Fri, 12/10/2012 - 12:46

'the Finnish educational system is excellent in educating obedient citizens with little interest in anything, studying for grades, not for knowledge or life, learning that social relationships are for earning something, not for having friends and learning from one another, labelling independent thinking as a behavioural disturbance, oppressing and humiliating the children who really have problems either in learning or because of difficult life situations or ethnic background.'

William's picture
Thu, 18/10/2012 - 07:44

'The main question is: does the Swedish experience show that for-profit schools – and choice in general – have a deleterious impact on education? The short answer is no, and here is why.

Firstly, Courtney cites Sweden’s PISA record, which is not good. And neither is its TIMSS record. But does the fact that competition and choice have increased while international comparisons suggest falling achievement show that competition and choice are the cause of falling achievement? Of course not. This would be to confuse causation with correlation.

So let us look at the evidence. All research from Sweden suggests some positive effects of the free school reform. The newest research from 2012 also indicates moderately positive short-term and long-term effects of competition in compulsory education, such as university attendance and mathematics grades in upper-secondary school. This is robust in controlling for grade inflation and other relevant changes in the education system, such as municipal school choice (which has an independent positive impact).
Nevertheless, it is sometimes difficult to discern exactly what the Swedish data are telling us because of the combination of decentralised grading practices with a heavily centralised admissions system that depends heavily on that same grading practice.

Instead, therefore, let us look at the cross-national PISA research. This finds that private school competition increases achievement in mathematics, science and reading – though standards are falling across the Swedish education sector. It also drives down costs. Similar findings have been shown in TIMSS research. This contrasts strongly with the official PISA report, which is not surprising given its poor methodology.

This should be enough to refute the idea that more competition drives down standards in international comparison tests.

Since we are comparing Nordic countries, however, let us go further. Interestingly, Norway and Sweden have fallen in international tests to the same degree since the 1990s, but only Sweden has increased choice significantly.

Instead, the common denominator is that both implemented pedagogical ideas with no grounding in research. By emphasising ‘individualisation’, the role of teachers has been reduced in favour of pupils learning by themselves. The evidence suggests that this often has an outright detrimental impact on achievement.

Furthermore, both countries have forced this idea into a national curriculum that practically all schools need to follow – there is no freedom for free schools here. In other words, the preponderance of evidence suggests that flawed pedagogical ideas are the key culprits behind Sweden’s fall in international tests, not choice and competition.

I’m not alone in emphasising this: Björklund et al.(2010), discussing various potential factors, conclude that individualisation ‘probably is the most important explanation for the fall in achievement in Sweden’.

Allan Beavis's picture
Fri, 12/10/2012 - 19:32

The link you provide appears to be "musings" from a Singaporean blogger who has cut and paste a highly personal and subjective opinion on Finnish schools, so I am struggling to understand why you have linked to it. Are you advancing it as evidenced research? Because if so it isn't.

The paragraph you have lifted is so at odds with what Finnish educators and those from both sides of the political spectrum who have observed the Finnish school system that the author's motives seem dubious and her perspective rather embittered.

What struck me about this paragraph is that the list of faults and failures are easily applied to Gove's top down, prescriptive policies.

William's picture
Fri, 12/10/2012 - 20:43

'The danger in the belief that the best way to strengthen schools and raise standards is to copy supposedly stronger performing systems such as Finland's is that it is simplistic and unrealistic. It's also ironic that as many are looking overseas for answers, the success of Australia's non-government schools is ignored.'

Janet Downs's picture
Sat, 13/10/2012 - 09:23

William - you make a good point that simply trying to impose one country's school system on another is simplistic. Each country is unique in its make-up, demographics and history. However, that's not to say that countries can't learn from one another. The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development found that the highest-performing countries in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests tend to be those that are the most equitable and don't segregate children according to where they live or their ability (at least not until upper secondary).

Michael Gove constantly names other countries in a global search for "evidence" which supports his policies. However, when this evidence is consulted it often doesn't quite say what Gove implies it does. See threads below:

and for a less serious take:

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 16/10/2012 - 07:09

Käännöstoimisto posted this comment on another thread (link below) on 16/10/12 at 5.59am. I have reproduced it here:

"I am a Finn myself, and have spent most of my learning time within the Finnish education system. I think that the Finnish education system is good for the most part. With regard to problems such as children not feeling good in school etc. it is hard to say without research how much the problems are due to the school system, and how much other factors such as national culture, problems at home etc. play a part."

William's picture
Thu, 18/10/2012 - 07:38

'While it's true that Finland was at the top of the PISA table in the 2006 tests, ranking first in maths, science and reading, since that time the country's results have gone backwards.

In the 2009 PISA test Finland dropped to sixth in maths, second in science and third in reading. In the 2009 test not only did Shanghai rank No 1 in the three areas but most of the other top performing education systems also were in the East Asian region.

It also needs to be noted that in the other more academically based and credible international test, the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, the last time the two countries met Australia outperformed Finland.

In Year 8 maths and Year 8 science Australia was ranked 13th and seventh, while Finland was placed 14th and 10th.

While those opposed to high-risk tests point to Finland to argue there is no value or benefit in high-risk tests and failing students, what is conveniently ignored is that the more successful East Asian countries have education systems that are highly competitive, where students are pressured to succeed and often streamed in terms of ability.'

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