This Thursday the DfE will release the detailed data on how each secondary school in England performed at GCSEs in 2012, including comparison to previous years, figures with and without GCSE equivalents and comparison by free school meal status and by (low, medium or high) performance of students at age 11. It is a remarkably useful and comprehensive set of information, and the Department is to be congratulated for distributing it.
However, judging by its past record, the government is likely to spin the information in support of its academies policy in a way that is at best misleading and at worst dishonest. Two statements that are likely, as government ministers have been using them over the past few months, are:
"Convertor academies achieved above other schools, with 68% achieving 5ACEM (5 GCSEs including English and Maths), compared to 57% in schools overall."
"Performance in sponsored academies grew at a rate twice as fast as schools overall."
Sponsored Academies: What to Look For
"Sponsored academies" include the original Labour academies, converted because of low performance or built in areas of deprivation, and continuing conversion - with a sponsor - of under-performing schools. All had low GCSE results and were generally below the floor of 35% achieving the 5ACEM benchmark.
Between 2010 and 2011 previously low achieving schools grew their results much more than the average - whether academies or maintained schools. Schools with over 60% on the GCSE benchmark did not, on average, increase that figure at all. For those below 35% the average growth in 2011 was above 8%. Sponsored academies have far more schools in the under 35% category (this being the reason they were converted) and so, even if they do no better than similar schools, will always look impressive when compared to the overall average.
The key questions are:
** How did the growth in GCSE results in academies compare to non-academies with similar results?
** How did that growth compare when GCSE equivalents (such as BTECs) are removed?
The "twice as fast" claim, endlessly repeated by government supporters, was made on the 2010 to 2011 growth. Take academies on less than 35% in 2010 and they did indeed grow their results by 8%. But take the non-academies on less than 35% and they also grew their results by 8%. Whether local authorities chose to use the academy route or not to improve their under-performing schools, the results were, overall, the same
For the first time in this year's data we will be able to compare two years (2011 and 2012) where the figures for 5ACEM are available without equivalents. We know that academies make more use of GCSE equivalents (an activity described by Gove as 'gaming' the system). Comparing their GCSE-only growth with other similar schools will reveal whether they even perform as well as similar non-academies.
Converter Academies: What to Look For
"Converter academies" are those Good and Outstanding schools encouraged by Gove to convert in the last two years. These were, by definition, the better performing schools. They therefore had better GCSE results and will, unless disaster has struck, continue to have better GCSE results. To claim their higher results are due to academy status is about as sensible as selecting a group of people based on being above average height and then boasting that they are taller than the average. Key questions to ask include:
** Have GCSE results in Converter Academies risen or fallen since becoming academies?
** How have they fared compared to Good or Outstanding schools who did not convert? (Ofsted ratings are unlikely to be included, so the appropriate comparison will be with other schools on similar levels of GCSE achievement.)
As I've already noted
, the first indications are that results in Converter Academies actually fell. If this is confirmed by Thursday's data, then serious questions should be asked about the £1 billion overspend on academy conversion.
The Key Question
The government has made clear that its main vehicle of school improvement is the academy programme (and the linked free school initiative, but few of these will have any results yet). The National Audit Office questioned
the £1 billion overspend in pursuit of this strategy. So the key question is:
Has this £1 billion been a good use of public money? Does the data show that it has actually resulted in significant school improvement?
And, if the data is presented in this misleading way, it begs the question of why? If academies were really performing as well as the government claims, then surely no distortion of the statistics would be necessary.