An education policy based on ideology not evidence

Henry Stewart's picture
Contact: Henry Stewart (07870 682442)

The government’s proposal to force one thousand schools to convert to academy status is an experiment based on dogma not data.  Most of these schools are primary schools and the government has been unable to produce any evidence that conversion of primary schools to academy status produces any improvement. Indeed analysis of primary school results indicates that academy conversion actually slows progress.

Nicky Morgan claims that the measures will enable the “best education experts to intervene in poor schools”. However the track record of the academy chains, to which she is referring, is middling at best. A recent DfE report found that of the 20 leading academy chains (those with five schools or more), only 3 have a value added that is above the national average.

No evidence of benefits from academy conversion

This January the Education Select Committee produced its report on academies and free schools. It stated that "current evidence does not allow us to draw firm conclusions on whether academies are a positive force for change" and that "academisation is not always successful nor is it the only proven alternative for a struggling school."

The National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER), in its report on academy school performance, found that "In analysing school-level GCSE data since 2007, no significant improvement is seen in the rate of improvement of GCSE results for academy schools over and above the rate of improvement in all schools."

Government education ministers have made various claims about the performance of academies. However in the High Court last summer the DfE claimed only that improvement in academies was "marginally higher". Even this disappeared when GCSE equivalents (which have since been largely removed from the performance measures) were stripped out.

Our own analysis at LSN has found that sponsored academies improve no faster than similar maintained schools. Indeed analysis of the 2014 GCSE results found that results in sponsored academies consistently fell more than results in non-academies.

Primary schools: academy conversion appears to slow progress

The Education Select Committee explored the effect of academies in the primary sector and found "no convincing evidence of the impact of academy status on attainment in primary schools".

Our own analysis of primary school results has found evidence that conversion to being an academy does have an effect, but its effect is to reduce progress. If primary academies are compared to similar non-academies (according to their previous results), then the increase in KS2 results is lower for academies in all cases except the top 20%.

The evidence is clear. For underperforming schools conversion to academy status resulted in slower progress than those schools which remained with their local authority. The DfE is aware of this analysis and has never challenged it.

Note: For this analysis, academies were split into five equal bands, by their 2012 KS2 results, and compared with non-academies in those ranges,

Academy chains: most perform significantly worse

The government's preferred solution for "underperforming" schools is to place them in an academy chain. However while a small number of chains have performed well, the majority have not.

The Education Select Committee report (p16) quoted a Sutton Trust report that stated “most [chains] are not achieving distinctive outcomes compared to mainstream schools; and there are actually more that perform significantly worse, than there are chains that perform significantly better”

The DfE's own analysis of the largest chains found exactly the same problem. If the performance of academies in chains was compared to schools in local authorities, then the latter were far more successful. Indeed combining the two to produce a top 50 reveals that 47 of the top performing ones are local authorities and only three are chains.

Ofsted is not allowed to directly inspect academy chains, as it does with local authorities. However it has carried out indirect inspections, by inspecting large numbers of schools from a single chain, with very worrying results. It has come to highly critical conclusions on AET, E-ACT, Kemnall and Schools Partnership Academy Trust.

With AET, half of the dozen schools inspected were found not to be providing a "good" education. On E-ACT, Ofsted stated that the “overwhelming proportion of pupils…not receiving a good education”.  Of 16 E-ACT schools inspected, no less than 11 were rated "Inadequate" or "Requires Improvement". The DfE did itself halt the expansion of 14 chains, because of concerns about their performance.

With the poor track record of academy chains to date, it is unclear why the government believes academy chains have the capacity or capability to transform one thousand schools.

Conclusion: a policy based not on evidence

There are some big questions for the government to answer about this new policy:

1) Most of these "underperforming" schools will be primaries. Given that the Education Select Committee specifically found no evidence of improvement from academy conversion in primaries, why does the government believe this will be the result?

2) Academy chains have a very mixed record, with more below average than above. Why is the government's solution to take schools from local authorities - which DfE data suggests perform better - and give them to academy chains - where DfE data indicates schools generally perform worse.

3) The government has stopped many academy chains from expanding because they have proved to lack the capacity or capability to manage their existing schools. Why does the government believe that academy chains have the capacity to take over one thousand further schools?

4) What is the government's plans for the many academies that fall into the "underperforming" category?

Nicky Morgan argues that these schools will be put in the hands of "education experts", though who judges who is an "expert" is unclear. What is likely is that they will be put in the hands of chains that do not have either the capacity or the expertise for this massive project. It is a policy that has no basis in evidence and could lead to far worse performance than if those schools were left with their local authority.

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Patrick Hadley's picture
Wed, 03/06/2015 - 05:56

Who needs evidence? It is the fundamental belief of Conservatives and Blairites, (I mention Blairites separately in case you think that it is possible to make a meaningful distinction between Conservatives and Blairites) that privatisation always improves public services. To them this is obviously always true, so there is no need even to present a logical argument in favour.

Conservatives and Blairites believe that all public service is inherently inefficient and that taking a service out of the control of the "state" will change it overnight into a model of efficiency and progress. Any evidence that shows that this is not true can be dismissed as propaganda from the unions. This is true whether we are talking about the trains, the water industry, prisons, power generation or anything else.

The relentless privatisation of all our local authority schools, begun by Tony Blair, will probably be completed under this government. There is nothing that can be done to stop it. We are just going to have to live with it.

Alistair Wilson's picture
Wed, 03/06/2015 - 06:14

Not only all of the above - but - this policy simply does not take into account any underlying detail that pokes more holes through it than a hedgehog in a wet paper bag.

Underlying detail - look at Little Spring Primary School in Chesham. Placed in special measures in November 2012 and racked up to an academy designate to cure the problem.

Academy chain E-Act ride to the rescue - or not - because what happened to that one Michael.

Five section 8 inspections later we arrive at November 2014 and the school is placed in special measures again!

What on earth happened in the intervening two years - 380 days of children in a failing school Nicky.

Five headteachers is what happened - with two temporary executive headteachers. Currently the school is led by the head of a local secondary, with the head and deputy seconded in from another local primary. All leave at end of 2014!

The IEB appointed in Feb 2013 appears to have had little idea of what it should be doing.

Reading between the lines you can see that the teachers have all soldiered on doing the best they can, as teachers do, and there has been considerable support in from the LEA although I don't know where from as I believe their improvement team was canned in the 2010 coalition cut fall out.

But academy status to rescue the children - its laughable - if it didn't make you cry.

You can read the details here -

… an article from the excellent Local Schools Network. You can read more of their posts here – They provide important evidence on the performance of academies – evidence which questions …

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 03/06/2015 - 07:30

Alistair - even when schools in Special Measures improve before becoming academies, they can still be forced to convert. This is what happened to Ryhall Primary School in Rutland. The school had been twice judged Inadequate but with local support, a determined head and the help of the LA it was judged Good in Summer 2014. The patient was better but the Gov't still insisted on the school taking the cure. It became a sponsored academy in October.

agov's picture
Wed, 03/06/2015 - 08:16

Who needs evidence?

Especially when the government can rely on (unwitting - presumably) help from ignorant journalists. This morning on 'Today' one of their education 'journalists' was repeating government propaganda about improvement at Downhills School having started after academisation.

I mention Blairites separately in case you think that it is possible to make a meaningful distinction between Conservatives and Blairites

Are there really any people who would still believe such a thing?

There is nothing that can be done to stop it. We are just going to have to live with it.

Probably, except to point out reality and hope change for the better may be possible at some point, which probably will not be until Labour is permanently out of the way.

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 03/06/2015 - 08:42

agov - as some of us know, improvement at Downhills began before it converted. The lead inspector in Ofsted monitoring (Autumn 2011) found ‘a clear trend of improvement’. Unfortunately for Downhills Michael Gove said it was still 'failing' and should become an academy. The same lead inspector who'd spotted improvement in the Autumn duly obliged and contradicted her earlier conclusion in January 2012.

Gove had probably spotted Downhills was improving and was, therefore, ripe for academy conversion. Any subsequent improvement could be credited to the sponsor (as has happened).

SAT results at Downhills rose from 40% achieving Level 4 in 2009 to 67% in 2012 before Harris took over. Although it’s not possible to compare 2012 Key Stage 4 results with those from 2014 because of changes to the tables, the DfE has nevertheless done so - it said results at Harris Academy Philip Lane (previously Downhills) had 'soared by a quarter' since Harris took over.

But that isn't true. In 2014, 77% of Philip Lane pupils achieved Level 4. A rise from 67% in Downhills’ last year to 77% is not a result which has ’soared by a quarter’. And any rise, of course, would be based on the foundation laid when the academy was Downhills - a point conveniently forgotten when politicians boast about rapid 'turnaround' of academies within a couple of years of conversion.

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 03/06/2015 - 08:47

John Howson, visiting Senior Research Fellow at the University of Oxford’s Department of Education, visiting professor at Oxford Brookes university and an Oxfordshire County Councillor points out the irony of 'failing' church schools joining 'a multi-academy trust run by the church' while a 'failing' community school is taken completely out of local control and given to 'an academic sponsor with no local affiliation at all'.

Sylvia HART's picture
Wed, 03/06/2015 - 17:47

Having just heard the BBC News it appears that the reasoning behind the move is to reduce parental opportunity to voice their objections to acadamisation. this is designed to enforce conservative policy and does not take account of children or their families views. This will lead to reduced mental health for these pupils as they have not been consulted and have no voice. Research suggests that young people with good mental health do better at school (Weare K. 2015).
I agree with your questions and would be interested in the governments response and any research they can quote to justify their position.

John Mountford's picture
Wed, 03/06/2015 - 22:34

Henry, this report is a bold attempt on your part to enlist support for a campaign to highlight the facts behind the government's plans for education (hence, I presume, your personal phone details). The academisation issue is, as you are fully aware, just one of many that threatens the future of state education. Assuming you want people to get behind you, I suggest the following.

1 People write to their MP with your four questions at the heart of their enquiry. The obvious intention being to press Nicky Morgan to answer them in The House. (We could produce a draft letter for their use.)

2 The letter could also flag up concerns about the government's slender majority, challenging the strength of its mandate for forced academisation.

3 A model letter should also be sent to local and national newspapers with a link to this article with the intention of encouraging people to join the campaign.

The government's proposal to change the law to require that in calling for industrial action in the public sector, unions must ensure that 40 percent of those eligible to vote do so and that, unless 50 percent of those votes are cast in favour of the action, it would be deemed illegal to strike. The votes cast in favour of the Conservatives at the election (its mandate to govern) was just 36.9% of the total ballot, a very noticeable 13.1% shortfall. By pointing this out it would highlight the undemocratic action being proposed by the government in removing the democratic rights of parents, governors and local communities to challenge forced academisation wherever it occurs.

You may know I have been campaigning for a change to the way education is governed ( for a long time. I still believe that has to be the way forward in the long term but, the issue of forced academisation is potentially such an emotive one with parents and teachers, I think we could well succeed in halting this plan as it strikes at the heart of our democratic rights.

For those interested, the Cambridge Primary Review Trust (CPRT) Blog carried an article of mine recently, "Democracy and Education", that gives a more detailed outline of the challenge faced by education in England.

I think we must be more proactive in fighting this present threat and would be interested in knowing what others feel.

Thank you, Henry.

Paul Hopkins's picture
Sat, 06/06/2015 - 20:59

I know it's not much against the might of the right wing press but we must tweet, write letters to the newspapers, blog and shout this from the roof tops. We must fill Nicky Morgan's in-hoc, tweet stream and if possible voice mail box with repeated statements of, "how can you continue to lie about about this Nicky". We must galvanise Tristram Hunt to do something not just stare into the middle distance.

If not us then who if not now then when!

John Mountford's picture
Mon, 08/06/2015 - 18:45

I have been following links via Nancy Bailey in the US. It is fascinating how many stories run just as meaningfully in the context of English education reform as they do there.

This article, by Aurora Moore, on what she calls the myth of school improvement is worth checking out. She identifies two powerful variables that she claims go unaccounted for in school improvement research, and hence are missed in parctice. She contends that by doing this we lose sight of the fact that "while the idea of value added modeling may be “evidence-based” that evidence was analyzed much in the same way as the analysis that gave rise to school improvement policy: correlational analyses of variables measured at one moment in time." Try explaining this to an Ofsted inspector who has access to all the dodgy data schools slavishly collect at their disposal to reach their judgement before even crossing the threshold, let alone to a government minister who came into office knowing it all.

… This is despite Ofsted’s own figures showing that sponsored academies are less effective at school improvement than local authority schools. The Local Schools’ Network describes the government policy “as an experiment based on do… …

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