Academy conversion is not essential for school improvement – it’s time the myth was exploded

Janet Downs's picture
“In removing academies from the control of local authorities, the expectation is that these schools use greater freedom and independence to lead and manage more effectively and more innovatively so that pupil outcomes improve.”

That’s what the Academies Commission report says. But it reveals the flaws in the spin that surrounds the academies programme:

1 No school is under local authority (LA) “control”. Schools maintained by LAs already have a great deal of autonomy – to spend most of their budgets, recruit teachers, allocate resources, co-operate with other schools, innovate and, in secondary schools, decide which courses and qualifications to offer. Local Authorities support schools by co-ordinating admissions, providing schools transport and welfare, and supplying back-room services to their maintained schools.

2 The high degree of autonomy in UK schools was recognised by the OECD in its analysis of data from the 2009 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests. The UK was among only four countries that allowed such a high degree of autonomy*.

3 The “control” comes not from LAs but increasingly from central government and, for some academies in chains, from their chains imposing a corporate “brand”.

4 The extra “freedom and independence” given to academies is the ability to set teachers’ pay and conditions, opt-out of the National Curriculum and spend that small part of their budget previously retained by LAs to pay for services. There are a few more dubious freedoms such as being able to employ unqualified teachers and being exempt from the national food standards that govern maintained schools. And academies, like Foundation, Trust and Voluntary Aided schools, can set their own admission criteria (but not introduce any extra selection). In exchange for these “freedoms”, academies have to take on a great deal more responsibilities.

It’s not necessary for schools to become academies in order to “lead and manage more effectively”. Neither is it necessary for schools to become academies in order to innovate. The City Challenge programme was more successful that the academy programme, a little-publicised Department for Education report found. And the London Challenge, praised for raising results in London schools, had little to do with sponsored academies, Ofsted said.

The ability to lead, manage effectively and innovate was present before academy conversion. It has been used by successful schools whether academies or not. Ofsted found that good and outstanding schools shared common features and academy status was NOT one of them. And PriceWaterhouseCoopers found that when schools improved they used similar strategies and these were not confined to academies**.

Academy status does not automatically raise performance. Henry Stewart’s analysis (see faq above), backed up by academics from Leeds and Manchester universities, shows there is no "academy effect". And as Henry points out here, £1 billion has been overspent on the academies programme while results in academies in 2012 appear to have gone down.

Isn’t it time the myth about academy conversion being essential for school improvement is exploded?

Academies Commission report downloadable here:

*See faq above : Is it true that schools with more autonomy tend to achieve better results?

**See faq above: The Government cites a 2008 report by PriceWaterhouseCoopers (PwC) to justify its academy conversion programme. Does this report wholeheartedly endorse academy conversion?

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