Michael Gove has made clear his desire to increase the study of traditional GCSEs like History, Geography and languages. He likes to suggest that sponsored academies, taking over from “underperforming” schools, give pupils more opportunity to take these subjects – especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds.
In fact analysis of the data, for the 2012 GCSE results, reveals the reverse is true. Pupils in sponsored academies are less likely to achieve GCSEs in traditional subjects than those in maintained schools. This remains true when those academies are compared with schools that are similar, in terms of previous levels of results or levels of disadvantage. Instead pupils in sponsored academies are more likely to take the GCSE equivalents, like Btecs, that the Department for Education is so dismissive of.
has shown that Gove’s claims of greater improvement in GCSE results for sponsored academies fall down when compared to similar schools. It is clear that, in terms of his agenda of taking more traditional subjects, it is far better for schools to stay with the local authority.
More pupils achieve a Geography or History GCSE in non academies
Students in sponsored academies are far less likely to achieve a history or geography GCSE. This is true overall and also when compared to a similar cohort of the previously lower achieving schools, or comparing only schools with high proportions of disadvantaged students.
The first column compares all sponsored academies (blue) to all maintained schools (red). The second compares only those schools that received 20%-40% GCSEs in 2012 (the main "under-performing band", as only one or two were below 20%). The third column compares sponsored academies and non-academies in schools where 40% or more of students are eligible for free school meals.
It is not the case that students in lower achieving schools, that become academies, are being transformed by new opportunities to take core academic subjects. Students in these academies are significantly less likely to take a humanity subject.
More pupils achieve a language GCSE in non academies
The same is true for languages. Students are less likely to take a language GCSE if they are in a sponsored academy – both overall, and when compared to similar schools.
The figures here are only for sponsored academies. Converter academies, which were previously mainly Good or Outstanding maintained schools, do continue to have the higher level of humanity and language achievement that they had before. This indicates that the above comparisons have a natural bias towards
sponsored academies. They are not being compared to all other schools but only to the subset that didn’t convert – which will have a far lower proportion of Good and Outstanding schools than the average.
Sponsored academies far more likely to achieve their results through equivalents
The reason that students in sponsored academies are achieving less humanity and language GCSEs may be because of the greater use of GCSE equivalents (like Btecs). This is regarded by the Department for Education as a means to “artificially inflate” GCSE results and most such qualifications will no longer count as equivalents (or will count for one GCSE instead of two or four) in the 2014 results. As Michael Gove put
it, “even though these qualifications held children back they were taught by adults because they counted in league tables”. But this is much more likely to happen in his favourite sponsored academies. While the GCSE benchmark figure for non academies in 2013 falls by 7.1% if equivalents are removed, that for sponsored academies falls by 14.7%.
It could be that this fall is greater because equivalents are used more in schools with lower results, which includes a greater proportion of sponsored academies. However comparing schools with similar low 2012 results (those in the band 20% to 40%), shows a similar contrast. Results in these sponsored academies fell by 17.1% once equivalents are removed, compared to 10.3% for non academies.
has shown that, when compared to similar schools, any extra increase for sponsored academies disappears. However once equivalents are stripped out in the 2014 results it seems likely that the increase for sponsored academies will be no longer be at the same level as similar non academies but will be significantly less.
Conclusion: The wrong focus for education policy
The natural conclusion is that the structure of a school – whether academy, free school or maintained – is far less important than this government believes. It has made the creation of academies and free schools the main focus of its resources, yet on Gove’s own key criteria – of a return to traditional subjects, especially for the poorest – students are far better off if their school stayed within the maintained sector.
While changing schools to become academies may fit the Secretary of State’s ideology, and his obsession with defeating the “blob” (which he sees local authorities as a part of), there is no evidence of better outcomes for the students affected.