“Academies are at the cutting edge of the education system, using their freedoms to innovate and improve standards.”
Department for Education Academies Report 2012/13
(published June 2014)
But a school doesn’t have to be an academy to be “at the cutting age”. It’s been repeated often enough: non-academies can do most things academies can do
and it’s not lack of “freedom” which stops innovation
but pressure from league tables.
The Academies Report exalts the superiority of academies. The DfE uses selected case studies to make its point. It even praises three local authorities where all secondary schools converted by 31 July 2013. One was Rutland - but there are only three secondary schools in Rutland. And Rutland County Council expressed fears about the impact of academy conversion
“As the number of Rutland schools becoming Academies increases, so does the impact on the provision of central services by the Local Authority.”
Another, featured at length, was Darlington. The DfE praises Darlington’s GCSE results: 64.8% reached the benchmark* - this is above the national average of 60.6%. But strip out equivalent exams** and the figure falls to 53.4% slightly below the national average of 53.6%.
Many of the case studies praising GCSE performance feature academies or academy chains which use equivalent exams heavily. This is not necessarily to criticise these academies – Ofsted found many to be good or better. But if the DfE praises academies for their outcomes then we should be made aware if equivalent exams played a large part.
Henry Stewart, using data supplied by the DfE, has found results for sponsored academies would have fallen overall by 7.4%
if the new way of calculating the value of equivalent exams had been applied in 2013.
Other case studies praised academies which used particular “freedoms”. But a school needn’t be an academy to change its curriculum
: there is nothing to stop non-academies from increasing literacy time or introducing silent reading. Curriculum change at secondary level is not fuelled solely by conversion: non-academies as well as academies are likely to have changed their curriculum because of EBacc and the new way of calculating the equivalent value of vocational exams. It’s disingenuous to suggest otherwise.
A school doesn’t have to be an academy to operate breakfast clubs, extended days or enrichment classes
. But the report implies these features will only be found in academies.
A school doesn’t have to be an academy to introduce performance-related pay
– it’s now a requirement
for all state schools.
If academy conversion were so wonderful, it should be expected that the number of schools applying annually to become academies would increase year by year. But the number of schools voluntarily applying to convert fell from 1,058 in 2011/12 to 731 in 2012/13. The number of schools becoming sponsored, however, rose from just 93 in 2011/12 to 366 in 2012/13, the year when enforced conversion took off.
It appears, then, the number of “rewarded succeeders” has declined while “punished failures” and “near-boiled frogs” have risen.
Academy freedoms don’t amount to much. They come with increased burdens and, in the case of some sponsored academies and academies in chains, decreased autonomy.
No amount of DfE-generated puff will change these facts.
*5 GCSEs (or equivalent) grade C or above including Maths and English
**Non-GCSE exams given a GCSE “equivalent” of, say, two or four GCSEs.