Policy Exchange report (part one) confirms three qualities of successful school systems but these qualities aren’t exclusive to academies.

Janet Downs's picture
The three qualities of successful school systems are “collaboration, autonomy and freedom” according to a Policy Exchange report, “Competition meets collaboration”, by James O’Shaughnessy, which proposes that schools which are judged to be requiring improvement should become academies and, if that doesn’t raise outcomes, then they should be handed over to for-profit education providers.

But collaboration doesn’t need academy status – schools can collaborate within local authorities, in trusts, through initiatives (ie City Challenge) and in local groupings. And autonomy has been a feature of English state schools since Local Management of Schools (LMS) was introduced – no state school is under local authority “control”.

O’Shaughnessy uses OECD quotes linking autonomy with improved outcomes but doesn’t say that the UK was among only four countries that gave the most autonomy to schools - that was in 2009 before the Coalition came to power (see faqs above).

O’Shaughnessy praises Grant Maintained (GM) schools, the forerunner to academies, for raising outcomes. But research (Lavacic and Hardman 1999) found that the relative higher performance of GM schools was explained by the changing composition of their intakes. This fuelled suspicions that many GM schools used covert selection which discouraged disadvantaged and low-attaining pupils.

The LSE report by Machin and Vernoit (2011) which painted a “relatively positive” picture of Labour’s sponsored academies was quoted at length but O’Shaughnessy missed the warning given both in the report and subsequently by one of the report’s authors that evidence from sponsored academies could not be used to justify the Coalition policy of converting schools to academy status.

O’Shaughnessy uses a paper published by Reform and “trade body” The Schools Network which had claimed to explode “academy myths” (see here for critique) to support his argument. The Schools Network is no more – it fell victim to market forces and was forced into administration. A management buyout saved the group which has now reverted to its previous name, the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust (SSAT). O’Shaughnessy confirmed that the main reason cited by heads who responded to the Reform/Schools Network survey was money although he confused the survey’s findings by quoting “main reasons” (plural) rather than the main reason (singular) to inflate heads’ support for such vague terms as “General ethos of educational autonomy”.

The report pushes academy status, preferably in chains, as the only route to school improvement – this isn’t so. It claimed that sponsored academies had improved at a faster rate than a group of similar schools. O’Shaughnessy cited figures given by Michael Gove in his “How are the Children” speech. But Channel 4 FactCheck warned in January 2012 that “A dose of healthy scepticism appears to be needed whenever ministers seek to use statistics to prove the supposed superiority of the academy model.” And Henry Stewart’s research (see faqs above) shows that sponsored academies do not do better than similar non-academy schools and that results in many academies had been “artificially inflated” by the use of non-GCSE “equivalent” exams.

Part One of “Competition meets Collaboration” contains many tables. One of these, “Advantages of expanding academy chains” (CEO survey 25 responses; analysis of Leschley, 2004), lists supposed advantages of chains. Leave aside the fact that there were few chains in 2004, many of these advantages such as increasing “the scope for sharing learning, subject specialisms, school improvement expertise and CPD” , increasing “economies of scale in the running of central services” and providing “greater purchasing power” can be provided by local authorities.

One of the supposed advantages was creating a “brand” but this diverts money from education to marketing. Durand Primary Academy spent nearly £200,000 on “media and political relations” and a marketing campaign in 2009/10. A year later, in November 2011, TES revealed that the United Learning Trust (ULT), a large sponsor of academies which had briefly been banned from taking on more academies because of poor performance, intended to spend £1 million of taxpayer’s money on public relations.

The list of advantages did not, of course, list any disadvantages. These were outlined by John Burn, OBE, an ex-principal of an academy, in evidence to the Education Select Committee. Burns warned that grouping academies in chains could “end the very freedoms that individual schools were supposed to enjoy.” It “can lead to individual Academies losing a large measure of control over their budgets and the appointment of staff, something which even maintained schools enjoy.” And in 2010, the National Audit Office warned that some academies felt they were being pressurised into buying central services from their sponsors which might not be the best value for money.

Opponents of O’Shaughnessy’s ideas told Newsnight (16/10/12) that they were “dogmatic solution to deal with a dogmatic design flaw of a new inspection system which sets up schools to fail.” Extra support for struggling schools was what was required plus initiatives by the Government to deal with poverty.

Instead, the Government creates a prison and calls it freedom.

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