The story about Wellington College and its head Anthony Seldon raises bigger issues than whether charismatic heads can turn round schools. Seldon himself is highly ideological, stages the Sunday Times Education Festival at the College, and is a fan of Andrew Adonis who called on him to be the next Labour Education Secretary. His involvement in the Wellington academy is due to his support of academies, and the Times reported on 2nd September that the plan was to build a chain of Wellington Academies which has now been put on hold. The big issue is why. THe sacking of the head of Wellington academy is certainly not good as the human cost of the programme is high, but the key issue is whether, as supporters like Seldon claim, academies are a miracle cure. Not at Wellington academy, where the 5 good pass rate measure dropped from 47% to 37%
Wellington academy had considerable advantages, notably a £32m new building, so when the GCSE results declined and OFSTED lowered its ratings the problem is more than just who should be the head. Gove has after all justified a billion pound overspend on the grounds that Academies are a magic bullet for improvement. This is the constant claim and as one failing school - or even a number of failing schools - cannot prove a model is flawed we need to put the Wellington academy in the bigger picture of the Academy revolution. The story made me dig out the file on GCSEs and academies, and in particular the Full Fact analysis of the GCSE debate which it put out on January 28th and set the debate in the wider context of the case Seldon, the government and the academy movement have consistently put.
This is that academies increase GCSE results far more successfully than other state funded schools. Full Fact quoted the DFE stating "Standards are rising in sponsored academies ...more than five times as quickly than in all state funded schools". While one failing school doesn't dispute this, the basis of the statement while true is clearly suspicious.
Sponsored academies have poor GCSE results. Most schools do better than them. So if school A has 100% pass rate and school B 50%, but school B increases by 5%, then on the DFE measure the school is more successful than school A. This crazy logic has been accepted across the media, which is why they find a failing academy like Wellington so remarkable.
Yet the data is not hard to read. Full Fact rightly noted that the DFE don't cite convertor academies, without commenting on what that larger pool would show, and noted Chris Cook of the Financial Times noting one third of failing schools are academies. And Full Fact, following Henry Stewart, noted that when poor performance is the criteria, Academies with 20-40% pass rates are improving at much the same rate in maintained and academy schools - 7.7% to 7.8% - and in the 40-60% bracket, maintained schools are 'slightly better ' than academies.
Yet Full Fact, having given this data, conclude that "it is right to conclude that sponsored academies have improved their standards at a quicker rate than non-academies". This is clearly NOT what the data show, and Full Fact should be asked to explain what they mean by this conclusion.
We are in the grip of a very powerful ideology, and Anthony Seldon is one of its major advocates. It appears that no matter how much data is produced to show that academies do not improve performance, it is not possible to get this accepted. His new role as head of the Academy may improve its performance, and I hope for the sake of the pupils he does. We should always want the best for the children.
But we do need to go beyond the powerful head syndrome to look at the big picture of the huge spending on academies and the justification that the academy model improves results faster than the maintained sector. Gove was claiming this for Free Schools in the Guardian at the end of last term. The data did not support that idea either. Our big problem is not with the data, but with the ideology. Seldon should be taxed with justifying his ideology, and that of Gove and Adonis who all share it. The debate has to be about the model, not individual schools and heads. If we can keep focused on that, then as with the eleven plus in the 1950s we will eventually win the argument. Whether that will be enough to overcome ideology is another matter.