Free schools and academies take more swift action to address literacy failure than LA schools, says minister, but DfE supporting ‘evidence’ is PR spin

Janet Downs's picture
‘The Government are committed to eliminating illiteracy…we are determined to raise reading standards, but free schools and academies are taking action more swiftly than local authority schools to tackle failure in those schools.’

Schools Minister, Nick Gibb, House of Commons, 21 July 2014

I asked the Department for Education (DfE) to describe the action being taken to raise reading standards and for proof that local authority (LA) schools lagged behind free schools and academies. I expected some reference to ‘reading’ or ‘literacy’ but there was just one. This cited the greater improvement rate (3%) in Level 4 Sats ‘reading, writing and maths’ at sponsored academies than in converter academies (1%) and LA schools (1%).

So, the data underpinning Gibb’s statement referred not just to literacy (reading and writing) but maths as well and, as we keep pointing out, sponsored academies’ improvement rate is calculated from a lower base. It is, therefore, bound to be larger than one calculated from a higher one. In any case, the improvement rate for converter primaries and LA ones was the same so, on the Government’s own reckoning, converter primaries are no better than LA ones.

The DfE said academies and free schools were taking some kind of action but didn’t say what form the action actually took. Catch-up lessons? Reading mentors? Greater parental involvement? The DfE gave no indication. Instead it trotted out the tired mantra about academies and free schools using ‘academy freedoms to effect improvement’. But non-academies can do most things academies can do. And the latest IoE report found school type doesn’t affect children’s ability to succeed. It’s more to do with pupil background and teacher expertise.

Academy ‘freedom’, the DfE said, came with ‘guidance and expertise’ from ‘strong and proven’ sponsors. These, apparently, would ‘boost performance and strengthen lines of accountability’. But the Academies Commission expressed concern in January 2013 that too many sponsors were growing too quickly and seemed to have no coherent policy for improving the academies they already had never mind those they intended to hoover up. One rapidly-expanding chain, AET has been stopped from taking on more academies because of concerns about poor performance. Ofsted’s focused inspections of twelve AET academies criticised the sponsor and heads in the chain didn’t have confidence in AET’s ability to provide support. A long-established chain, E-Act, has had academies removed and Prospects, which was allegedly fast-tracked to take on more academies by ex-schools minister Lord Hill, has now dumped its academies. Some of the approved sponsors on the DfE ‘approved’ list don’t seem to have any experience of running schools and in one case (Carillion Academies Trust) doesn’t officially exist. 50 of the 319* sponsors operating in 2012/13* – the third largest group – are ‘education businesses’ rather than other education sectors or charities.

Again and again, the hype around academies and free schools is found to be hollow: a mixture of bland soundbites about academy ‘freedoms’ and misrepresented statistics. And this is becoming more and more obvious.

*See page 24 of Academies Report 2012/13 downloadable here.

ADDENDUM In July 2011, the then Education Secretary, Michael Gove, said he wanted academy chains to grow as quickly as possible. He is responsible, therefore, for the outcome of this reckless haste.
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