£1 Billion Overspent on Academy Conversion & Results Go Down

Henry Stewart's picture
Two months ago the National Audit Office revealed an overspend of £1 billion on the academy conversion programme. This week in the Financial Times Christopher Cook described how, in addition, government errors have led to an overspend of £174m on new academies, with individual academies receiving up to £1 million extra due to the mistake.

In December,at the Public Accounts Committee, Chris Wormald (Permanent Secretary at the Department for Education) justified the huge expense of academy conversion on the basis that "the government took a very conscious decision that its major school improvement programme was the academies programme."

Has the investment in academy conversion worked?

The least that could be expected - from the extra money provided to the schools, the claimed benefits of the increased freedoms and the fact rthis is the government's primary means of school improvement - is that some improvement happened. However a posting by Bill Watkins (Operations Director of the SSAT - the Specialist Schools & Academies Trust) this week reveals, based on DfE figures, that not only has there been no improvement but the numbers achieving the GCSE benchmark in converter academy schools fell by 0.7% in 2012.

At the same time it is not clear that the figure for sponsored academies has improved this year. We have already shown how the improvement in sponsored academies in recent years is no more, and sometimes less, than in similar maintained schools. Bill Watkins quotes a figure of 2.5% improvement last year for sponsored academies. However DfE figures show that the sponsored academy figure for the 2012 GCSE benchmark drops by 14.9% once you consider GCSEs only (and not equivalents like BTECs). In 2011 that drop was 11.8%. So the increase in the benchmark was 2.5% but 3.1% extra was due to increase in equivalents, suggesting the GCSE only figure for sponsored academies actually fell in 2012 by 0.6%.

Of the £1 billion, around £200 million went on the sponsored academy programme and so could be argued to be targeting the most needy schools. However the vast majority went on already successful schools, rated highly by Ofsted, and - according to this data - with no immediate benefit.

At the same time the argument that the high-performing schools converting to academy status would help weaker schools to improve has been seen not to happen. Indeed Bill Watkins in the same post explains why this is very unlikely to happen, because it is simply not in the interest of the new academies to help weaker schools.

These academies are all Good or Outstanding local schools who do a great job for their students. However there is no evidence of any improvement  resulting from this huge investment in academy conversion.

Will the fact that conversion to academy status caused a fall, not a rise, in results lead to any questioning of the programme? Will the lack of any evidence that converting successful schools lead to serious questioning of the £1 billion cost?

What could £1 billion have been spent on?

If education policy was driven by evidence and a desire for real educational improvement, then surely it would be time for a change in priorities. The most successful programme of school improvement in recent years was arguably the London Challenge, which helped transform education in the capital at a cost of around £50 million. Imagine if the £1 billion had been spent on similar schemes across the country.

Or I rather like the response of Mike Tomlinson (at a debate on free schools in Hackney in December) when asked what his priority would be: "If Michael Gove asked me 'what would you invest in?' I would say the development of teachers." Imagine the scale of improvement if that huge investment had been made in teacher development rather than a change in school structures for which there is no evidence of benefit.

Data Notes & Sources

GCSE benchmark: 5 GCSEs including English and Maths

0.7% fall in converter academies GCSEs: SSAT article
2012 GCSEs by type of school, with figures for GCSEs only & with equivalents: DfE First statistical data release



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