DfE reveals dismal performance of academy chains

Henry Stewart's picture
In a break from its often partisan use of data, the DfE has published a remarkably thoughtful and detailed analysis of the performance of local authorities and academy chains. And it reveals, in terms of value added, a picture of serious underperformance by the chains.

Of the 20 academy chains (being those multi-academy trusts with at least 5 schools), only 3 have a value added that is above the national average.

When academy supporters talk about "high performing academy chains" they always refer to ARK and Harris. These are indeed strongly performing in these tables (along with the Diocese of Westminster). But they are the exception. Fully 85% of academy chains are under-performing.

Comparing local authority schools and academy chain schools

The declared aim of Michael Gove was "to liberate comprehensives from the dead hand of town hall control". Instead they were to become part of academy chains. Whether or not they had previous experience of co-ordinating schools, and without any accountability to the local communities, chains would transform schools. The DfE data makes clear that this hasn't happened. If the lists of chains and local authorities are combined then the top 10 for value added (GCSE only) are:

NameTypeVA GCSE only
Waltham ForestLA1036.0
ARK SchoolsChain1027.2
Harris FederationChain1027.0


Now ARK and Harris do get into the top ten but only just. London local authorities are again the best performing schools. Indeed in the top 50 of the combined list, only 3 are academy chains. Meanwhile in the 50 with the lowest value added, 15 are academy chains.

The DfE data makes clear that Gove's ideology was misguided. The result is that, across the country, children have been let down. Their results, if they were in the majority of the chains, were worse than they would have been if still in a local authority school.

The DfE paper is full of caveats. It points out that chains may have recently taken over underperforming schools. However my analysis last year compared chains and local authorities, only including schools that had been with a chain for at least 5 years. I found that, of the 7 largest chains, 5 had an average GCSE score (without equivalents) of 35% or less. Of 152 local authorities, only 2 had an average of 35% or less. (Also, the DfE calculation adjusts for the length of time a school has been in a chain.)

The figures for LAs only include schools in their area that are not academies. The paper also notes that LA figures may be lower than otherwise because so many of their Good and Outstanding schools have become academies. Given this fact it is truly remarkable that the local authority value added figure is so strong.

Who will expose the scandal of academy chains?

Academy chains are principally the creation of the current government. The Coalition initially protected them from Ofsted inspection and did not require them to reveal how the funding they receive is spent at a school level. Even now, Ofsted can inspect them but cannot deliver a judgement on the chain as a whole.

Tristram Hunt has started to recognise this. Last week, after stating that "chains can be an incredibly important architecture in a school innovation system" he did say "I see too many schools struggling with second-rate academy chains, and I want to set them free". He added that "I see far more control, micro-managing and revenue-skimming than in many a local authority."

Tristram's suggestion that schools should be allowed to escape from poorly performing chains is a step in the right direction. However he surely needs to be tougher in exposing the scandal of the academy chains. They are a massive experiment with our children's future, based on ideology rather than evidence, and it is now clear that the experiment has failed. In the coming election campaign this is an open goal and the Coalition government should be held to account for it.


Date note: The value added figure is based around 1000. Every grade above the average adds 6 pts. So in a local authority with a score of 1006 each pupil, on average, gets one grade (in one subject) above the average. In Hackney, with a score of 1049.7, each pupil, on average, gets over eight extra grades above the average. Given that the value added score is for their Best 8 subjects, that is equivalent to one grade higher in each of their GCSEs.

Note: Chris Cook has also produced a very useful analysis of this DfE data for the BBC, also including the DfE data on improvement in the value added score. He points out that this DfE analysis does cast doubt on government policy.

Note: The phrase "high performing academy chains", used by academy supporters, is a clever one. It implies all academy chains are "high performing". I have heard people talk about how "high performing academy chains" have some of the strongest results in the country. When challenged with the data on chains overall, these proponents explain that they were talking about "high performing" chains like ARK and Harris. By definition if you only include "high performing" providers, then their results will always be above average.
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Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 27/03/2015 - 08:55

I guess there won't be a crowing press release about these findings.

The DfE statisticians admitted 'Schools with the lowest previous outcomes tend to see the largest improvements.' This is what we and others have said constantly all the time ministers have praised the greater improvement rates in academies when compared with all schools.

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 27/03/2015 - 13:25

Henry - you might be interested in the latest Reform report, called without irony 'Education in Chains', which says:

1 The Gov't should expect most schools to join 'groups' (ie multi-academy trusts, or MATs).
2 These groups should be given stronger 'ability' to 'develop strategic corporate centres' (management speak for central offices which take control).
3 Between 8% - 10% of the group's revenue should be invested in the 'corporate centre' (ie divert money to head office - this could easily lead to a culture of extravagance as demonstrated by E-Act or be used for marketing).
4 School capital budgets should be devolved to 'competent' school groups (ie the MAT would decide where and what to build regardless of the needs of the local area).

And yet, as we're seeing, there is no evidence that MATs perform better than LAs. And LAs exert far less control over their maintained schools than happens in a MAT many of which enforce corporate (oh how I hate that word) conformity over their academies.

Is it too much to ask that education be discussed in educational terms and not in the jargon of business management?

… findings have been analysed and commented on widely. Anti-academy campaigners used them to claim that academy chains do not deliver better results than local authorities. Newsnight’s Chris Cooke …

Dz's picture
Wed, 03/06/2015 - 17:57

There are substantial issues with these conclusions.

1) The reference paper is not a statistical comparison of independent vs state schools. It's a discussion paper about measures. Conventional approaches are trial based and/or econometric (control for everything else apart from funding, independence etc).

2) To have a conclusion on this matter you have consider all the international evidence on independent vs state run schools.

3)The paper makes clear value added by definition only controls for previous attainment, all other factors are not controlled for via blinded randomisation of a large sample or regression: "The nature of value added means that two schools with the same score can have very different characteristics which may affect rates of improvement."

Mark Barnes's picture
Mon, 04/04/2016 - 20:48

The article combines the two DfE tables to compare scores of Academy Chains and LAs. The report to which the tables are annexed states on at least three occasions that the two groups have 'different roles and responsibilities' and that the scores should therefore be used only to make comparisons between chains or between LAs, not across those groups. I am not sure how valid that is, but I suggest the author should make clear that he is using the tables in a way which is explicitly deprecated by those who produced them. Even if the authors of the study are wrong to deprecate such a comparison, I would be troubled by the article highlighting that 'only' two chains appear in the top 10, without also explaining that the combined table would contain 20 chains and 100 LAs, so 2 in the top 10 is precisely the proportion one would expect.

… not a sponsored academy. This may be because most sponsored academies are part of academy chains, whose problems are clear from DfE data. With only 4 of the 20 biggest chains showing above average results, in terms of value added, the …

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