Is DfE research into academies little more than pseudo-research if it presumes a “self-improving” school system doesn’t include LA schools?

Janet Downs's picture
The Department for Education (DfE) wants “to help ensure improvements to education and children’s services are informed by evidence” but its research into “self-improving” school systems omits the majority of English schools: the non-academies.

Academies, free schools, UTCs and studio schools all appear in the DfE list but non-academies under the stewardship of local authorities are absent.

So, is the DfE approaching the research into academies with an open mind? It would appear not. The brief begins with a presumption that academies result in improvement:

“Many schools are now benefitting from the freedoms that the academy status brings to them to raise standards”.

But the Academies Commission found these extra freedoms don’t amount to much: non-academies can do most things academies can do. And Ofsted found good and outstanding schools show similar qualities and academy status wasn’t one of them.

So what are these extra “freedoms”?

1Over pay and conditions – but performance-related pay has been imposed on all schools despite being an ineffective way of improving teacher performance.

2Over curriculum – if exemption from the national curriculum is so desirable, then it should be available to all schools not just those who change status.

The DfE produced a summary of research into academies (author’s comments in brackets):

1Machin and Vernoit (2011). (But the researchers warned their findings could not be applied to converter academies.)

2National Audit Office (2010). The NAO wrote: “Many of the academies established so far are performing impressively in delivering the intended improvements.” (But it added “It cannot be assumed, however, that academies’ performance to date is an accurate predictor of how the model will perform when generalised more widely”.)

3Robert Hill’s 2013 report which highlighted the importance of “governance” of academy chains. It also concluded chains comprising three or more academies improve faster than others. (But this has taken rather a knock recently with the “pausing” of some large chains and pre-warning letters sent to others.)

4The Academies Commission. The DfE admitted the Commission said “gaining academy status is not sufficient…to affect improvement” (Why, then, is the research excluding non-academies?)

5ISOS Action Research (2012) which highlighted the importance of collaboration. (Unfortunately, collaboration is less likely in a fragmented system when schools are in competition.)

The DfE repeated that autonomy is a feature of high-performing school systems. That’s true. But the Academies Commission cited evidence from OECD that the UK already allowed significant freedom for all its schools. The one freedom not included was over the curriculum and this could be solved overnight without spending a penny.

The results of such research are unlikely to reveal anything reliable about self-improving school systems if it ignores any role for non-academies and if it’s based on the false premise that academy conversion is essential to raise educational standards.


In other words its research into self-improving school systems is pseudo-research masquerading as a genuine search for evidence.
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