DfE Data: Sponsored academies lead to slower school improvement

Henry Stewart's picture
Contact: Henry Stewart (07870 682442), henry@happy.co.uk

A new release of data from the DfE, in response to my Freedom of Information request, provides dramatic evidence that sponsored academies are not the best route to school improvement.

* For secondary schools rated "Inadequate", sponsored academies are almost four times as likely to remain "Inadequate" at their next inspection (27% v 7%)
* For primary schools rated "Inadequate", sponsored academies are over twelve times as likely to remain "Inadequate" (8% v 0.6%)

Nicky Morgan justified the key elements of the Education and Adoption Bill, currently going through parliament, on the basis that no child should remain in an inadequate school for a day longer than is necessary. The DfE's own data indicates that, if forced academisation goes through, then many more children will remain in inadequate schools for longer than if they had remained maintained schools.

The numbers are not huge. The DfE figures indicate that just 66 secondary schools and 48 primary schools, that were converted while "Inadequate", have had an Ofsted inspection since the conversion. Surprisingly 82% of secondaries and 63% of primaries have not, according to this data, been reinspected. However this is the only data that exists on the effect conversion has on the Ofsted rating of underperforming schools. There is no data to support the Secretary of State's argument that becoming a sponsored academy accelerates a school's improvement. There is this evidence to show the opposite.

Local authorities are good at helping "Inadequate" schools improve

The assumption behind the Education & Adoption Bill is that maintained schools languish as Inadequate and that local authorities do not have the capability to help them improve. Analysis of Ofsted ratings shows that the reverse is true:

Of the 331 primary schools that were rated Inadequate at their previous inspection, and did not become academies, only two remained Inadequate by the time Ofsted called again. On average, this was less than 18 months later.

It seems that the local authority, or whichever body is responsible for challenge and support, does a remarkably good job of helping schools improve from Inadequate. There are even eight maintained primary schools that have gone from "Inadequate" to "Outstanding" at the next inspection, compared to just one sponsored academy.

This also represents considerable improvement. Just over two years ago the Ofsted report indicated that 3.5% of "Inadequate" primaries retained that status at their next inspection. The proportion is now just 0.6%. Indeed only one local authority in the country did not manage to get all its "Inadequate" primary schools to a higher rating.

Sponsored academies are more likely to stay inadequate and more likely to become inadequate

When a school converts to becoming an academy, its Ofsted rating is removed. Ofsted publishes regular "Management Information" datasets, giving the last two Ofsted ratings for every inspected school in England. For the 217 sponsored academies that have had two inspections since conversion, this allows comparison to maintained schools starting from a similar point:

A secondary school rated "Inadequate" is over 2.5 times as likely to remain Inadequate" if it is a sponsored academy (18% v 7%)
A secondary school rated "Requires Improvement" is 2.5 times as likely to become "Inadequate" if it is a sponsored academy (20% v 7%)
A secondary school rated "Good" is 5 times as likely to become "Inadequate" if it is a sponsored academy (20% v 4%)
A secondary school rated "Outstanding" is almost 3 times as likely to become "Inadequate" if it is a sponsored academy (8% v 3%)

This analysis only covers secondary schools, as only seven sponsored academy primary schools have had two inspections since conversion. The figures are slightly different from my previous post as they are based on a more recent Ofsted report (June 2015).

Growing evidence of sponsored academy difficulties

Last week the Sutton Trust published Chain Effects 2015, on the academy chains that sponsored academies become part of on conversion. examining secondary schools, it found that 15% of sponsored academies are currently rated “inadequate” by Ofsted (compared to 6% for secondary schools overall) and that no less than 44% could be defined as "coasting", based on their 2014 results.

While there are some chains demonstrating “impressive outcomes”, “a larger group of low-performing chains are achieving results that are not improving and may be harming the prospects of their disadvantaged students”. They added that “far from providing a solution to disadvantage, a few chains may be exacerbating it”.

Secondaries: Sponsored academies improve GCSE results at a slower rate

The current and previous Secretaries of State have made regular claims about the progress of sponsored academies, by comparing them to the progress of schools as a whole. Starting from a lower base they are likely to improve more. The key question is how well the results of sponsored academies compare to those of maintained schools starting from a similar point.

For the results in 2011, 2012 and 2013 I analysed the DfE data and found generally that sponsored academies did no better than maintained schools starting from a similar level. However they also did no worse, though I did point out their results were perhaps inflated by the inclusion of GCSE equivalents.

In 2014 most GCSE equivalents were no longer eligible for the benchmark GCSE result. My initial analysis showed that the fall in GCSE results from 2013 to 2014 was greater for sponsored academies, when compared to similar schools. I have now, for the first time, compared sponsored academies and maintained schools over the last three years:

In the lower band, those schools who only achieved 20-40% on the GCSE benchmark in 2011, maintained schools improved at a slightly faster rate.

In the higher bands (40-60% and 60% and over) schools overall saw a fall in results as GCSE equivalents were removed from the figures. However the results for sponsored acadmies fell by much more.

Primaries: Sponsored academies improve KS2 results at a slower rate

Three months ago I compared the improvement in primary sponsored academies to similar maintained schools from 2012 to 2014. In that case I split the schools into five equal quintiles by their 2012 results.

In the four lower quintiles maintained schools improved their results at a faster rate than those of sponsored academies. Only for the highest quintile did sponsored academies increase at a faster rate.

So for primary schools most in need of improvement, they improved at a faster rate - achieving better KS2 SATs results, if they remained a maintained school.

Summary: No evidence that sponsored academies lead to improvement


None of this analysis has ever been challenged by the DfE. They seek to use different data, but can only get a positive result for sponsored academies by comparing them to all schools, and not to similar maintained schools.

Schools that become sponsored academies are more likely to remain "inadequate", and more likely to become "inadequate" if they are currently have a higher rating. Both secondary and primary schools generally grow at a slower rate, or fall at a faster rate, if they become sponsored academies. And the DfE's own report shows that the vast majority of academy chains have a value added that is below the national average.

Headteachers and teachers in sponsored academies are working hard and doing all they can for their students, just as their colleagues do in other schools. Yet there is clearly something about the nature of sponsored academies that makes it harder for them to improve. Since the same disparity does not seem to exist for converter academies, it seems likely that the problem lies with the academy chains that sponsored academies are part of.

The Sutton Trust report last week revealed that there has been little quality control in the approval of the chains, with over 91% of those applying being approved. Perhaps it is not surprising that a wide variety of people have been able to establish chains, with little quality control and often little previous experience, that this has not led to a better model of school improvement than the long established local authorities.

Questions for the DfE?

This data raises questions for the Department for Education:

* Given that the DfE has this data, and were able to supply it to me, are they aware that sponsored academies are more likely to remain inadequate than maintained schools?

* What is the DfE doing to address the issue of widespread underperformance by academy chains?

* On what evidence does Nicky Morgan claim that sponsored academies are a better route to improvement, and why is the Education Bill based an an approach so at odds with the data?

* Should the bill be scrapped, and replaced with a Bill that is based on the evidence of what helps schools to improve?

* Why has the government refused the amendment (see below) to only allow academy chains to take over schools if they have a successful track record? How will parents feel if their children's school, in a challenging state, is handed to a chain that does not have a successful track record?

The Education Bill: evidence for change

As currently drafted, the Education and Adoption Bill forces the Secretary of State to issue an instant Academy Order if a school is rated "Inadequate". Further, it required the local authority and governing body to implement that order, whether or not they believe it is in the best interest of the school.

The evidence is now clear, from the DfE's FoI release, from analysis of Ofsted's own data and from the Sutton Trust findings that conversion to a sponsored academy is more likely to slow down a school's improvement than to accelerate it.

An amendment was put at the committee stage of the Bill to ensure that academy chains could only take over a school, as a sponsored academy, if it had a successful track record of school improvement. It is hard to argue that this does not make sense, but the amendment was rejected. In the light of the above evidence it is especially important that such an amendment is made, if we really want to ensure that children remain in "Inadequate" schools for as short a period of time as possible.

See also Schools Week coverage

Related Links

For further evidence of doubts about the performance of sponsored academies, check out my posts on:

"Are academy chains harming the progress of disadvantaged pupils"? (Sutton Trust report)

"DfE reveals dismal performance of academy chains" (DfE data)

"Does academy conversion actually lead to slower improvement in schools?" (Education Select Committee and evidence on primary schools)

"The Academies Illusion: What the data reveals": The historical data on academies performance

Also, to hear the discussion on the FoI release on Today on Friday 31st July, click through here.

Data Notes

Data on Ofsted grades for sponsored academies that converted while inadequate: FoI response from DfE July 2015

Data on last two Ofsted grades: Ofsted Management Information, June 2015. This lists every inspected school, their current grade and their previous grade, with the dates of both. This report has been published monthly since March 2013 and all these reports are available on the above link. The 3.5% figure for "just over two years ago" refers to the April 2013 report.

Analysis on KS2 and GCSE progression are taken from the DFE's releases of data on all schools in England.

Share on Twitter Share on Facebook

Be notified by email of each new post.


Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 31/07/2015 - 07:15

The FoI response appears to confirm NAO findings: informal intervention such as local support is more effective than formal intervention such as academy conversion.
It should also be remembered that some sponsored academies were already improving before conversion. Downhills was the most notorious example. Those sponsored academies which had a higher Ofsted rating compared with predecessor schools could have been building on foundations already laid. The improvement in grade is, of course, attributed to the sponsor (as has happened with Downhills now Harris Philip Lane).

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 31/07/2015 - 08:20

Just heard you on Radio 4, Henry, discussing your findings. Your fellow interviewee, Bill Watkin, made two revealing statements:

1 Ofsted judgements are closely tied to test scores.
2 Some schools have low test scores because of their context: eg large numbers of disadvantaged pupils, pupils with English as an Additional Language (EAL) etc.

But according to the Gov't such reasons are not acceptable. To say some schools are struggling according to context is 'the soft bigotry of low expectations'. Academy conversion, especially with a sponsor, the Gov't says, will pull these schools up by their boot straps.

It's long been suspected some inspectors make up their minds about schools based on data before they've visited. And schools with intake skewed to the bottom end are more likely to have lower Ofsted grades than those with intake skewed to the top. It's not entirely the case, however. The EEF found some 'below floor' schools had good Ofsted grades and were doing a good job in difficult circumstances. . Unfortunately, the Gov't judges schools by results alone - 'coasting' relies entirely on results.

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 31/07/2015 - 08:30

The DfE told Schools Week the data was misleading because the sample of primary schools was too small. That's true, but it's more than twice as large (66) than the tiny sample of free schools (24) which the Gov't used to say how free schools were so much better than other schools.

What surprised me about the data was how few sponsored academies which were once Inadequate had actually been inspected. Of the 370 such primary academies, only 304 have been inspected. It may be, of course, they have only just been sponsored but 66 seems a rather low number.

Sarah's picture
Fri, 31/07/2015 - 09:06

This information should be sent out to every MP and every publication with an education correspondent in the country. That may already have happened. It blows apart any iota of credibility that the Education and Adoption Bill has.

I never fail to be surprised that the DfE and those who support the academies policy are so dismissive of any evidence put before them that academisation is not the silver bullet it is being lauded as.

This is a really newsworthy education story but as far as I can see the only publication running it is SchoolsWeek which is a bit niche. Why are the English press so prepared to regurgitate DfE press releases and so reluctant to tell such a startling evidence-based story?

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 31/07/2015 - 09:38

sarah - much of the media is close to the Tories. For example, concerns are being raised about Osborne's meetings with Murdoch prior to the BBC funding cut; Justice Secretary Michel Gove has always been close to Murdoch; Gove has accepted 'lodging' hospitality from Lord Rothermere, owner of the Mail (Gove's wife works there) and Cameron sent cosy texts to Rebekah Brooks, ex NoW.

It will be interesting to see how many papers pick up Henry's story. It's only just been released into the public domain and it was encouraging the BBC ran it on Today. The interview can be heard on Listen Again (shortly after 8.30am).

Roger Titcombe's picture
Sun, 02/08/2015 - 10:28

Henry is showing once again that, even within its own terms of reference, the school improvement-driven-by-market-competition paradigm is not supported by the evidence. Indeed, the contrary is clearly the case: Henry reveals that Market competition and business-driven approaches to school management, on average, produce poorer outcomes than the staid old approaches of having experienced LA based educationalists (when you can find them) offering 'quality of teaching' and 'collegial leadership' based support that includes co-operation rather than competition between schools.

But what are the underlying reasons for this? Henry addresses one of the main ones. The 'spectacular' apparent school improvement led by 'sponsored' academisation, which the media fell for hook, line and sinker, was largely driven by the vocational equivalent scam. (See Part 3 of 'Learning Matters') When Gove rightly dismantled this, aggregate results declined, and it should be no surprise that they fell fastest in those Academy schools that exploited the scam the most. These have been mainly the Academies located in communities where intakes are skewed towards the lower end of the cognitive ability distribution. (See Section 4.8 of 'Learning Matters') These are the schools that have believed their own dogma that free market rigour inevitably raises standards. Academies like Mossbourne and those in the more successful Academy Chains, which use CATs based banded admissions systems, had less need for the vocational equivalent scam and so suffered less withdrawal symptoms on its demise.

However this is not the whole story. This is what I wrote in 2014 in Section 3.7 of 'Learning Matters'.

"The 2013 GCSE results generated a debate about early entry. The downgrading of vocational equivalents from 2014 is likely to result in schools changing their curriculum from easy vocational subjects to prioritizing the C grade performance in their chosen Ebacc qualifying subjects.
It appears that many schools are already anticipating this by bringing KS4 forward to Year 9, requiring pupils to make option subject choices at age 13 instead of 14 and losing the opportunity for cognitive consolidation in Year 9 through a policy of early GCSE entry in Years 9 and 10. Year 11 may mainly be used for mopping up residual essential C grades. Such a strategy would encourage behaviourist ‘teaching to the test’ in all three years.
It remains to be seen whether such changes will be educationally beneficial or whether they will just represent another chapter in the ever-changing saga of manipulating the curriculum in order to succeed in the league tables and jump the next ‘tough’ performance target to be imposed upon schools by the Government.

Most of the media discussion following from the 2013 GCSE results was about Y10 entries especially in English and maths. I also predicted a trend towards the general commencement of KS4 in Y9 with some entries even at the end of that year. This provides for multiple attempts at getting the vital league table driving C grades by the end of Y11 Some schools have been making further multiple entries in the same subject with different exam boards, all at considerable cost to the taxpayer. The result is bound to be reductions in the numbers of students achieving higher grades [and the deeper understanding needed in reformed GCSEs] as [academic] subjects are abandoned as soon as the C grade is achieved. This appears to be what is happening."

The important point here is that the particular design of the English system educational market has the perverse consequence of incentivising 'quick fix' C Grade focussed, behaviourist teaching methods that produce the results that have in the past driven league table success and OfSTED survival. Perhaps the recent reforms to the exam system designed to inject more rigour into the curriculum are also exposing the shortcomings of behaviourist teaching methods compared to the developmental approaches set out in Part 5 of 'Learning Matters', which are perhaps more likely to be found in LA schools that lack the same degree of free market management ideology to be found in Academies. Are the sorts of business-focussed Executive Principals that run Academies likely to know the difference?

Could it be that that the neo-liberal system that ideologically driven governments have imposed on our schools is falling victim to the stresses created by its own internal contradictions? A classic Marxist dialectic operating within the English marketised education system?

Unfortunately Thomas Kuhn has something to say about the likelihood of this happening, as I set out in Section 5.13 of 'Learning Matters'.

"The thrust of Kuhn is that paradigms acquire a high degree of inertia and are not easily abandoned. Contradictory evidence is not enough until the amount and quality of such evidence reaches a tipping point. Where the paradigm has been adopted by the state as an official orthodoxy it is especially hard to overcome. The Lysenko agricultural paradigm in the Soviet Union required mass starvation on an apocalyptic scale before it was finally superseded in an agricultural Kuhnian revolution. The Secretary of State for Education at the time of writing this book, Michael Gove, up to his sacking in July 2014, appeared to be showing a similar neo-Stalinist attitude to the school system in his desire to control what children must learn and how they must be taught in our schools. [His successor shows no sign of a change in course] It will therefore require a Kuhnian educational revolution to supersede this."

Which of the Labour leadership candidates is promising the profound changes that are required? There appears to be only one.

Barry Wise's picture
Mon, 03/08/2015 - 10:53


On multiple & early entries: I don't think things are going the way you say as the rules have changed such that only the first entry counts for performance data. Nor can you get round this by entering via different boards..... not even as some have apparently explored, by entering for different boards that are examined on the same day!

Strictly speaking, multiple and early entries will still be possible and students keep bragging rights on their 'personal best' for sixth form and university applications etc, but there is no built-in incentive to go early and/or often as far as league tables are concerned. Quite the opposite.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Mon, 03/08/2015 - 12:28

Barry - I am not saying that these ways of gaming the system still apply. What I am arguing is that such approaches are associated with the culture of behaviourist 'quick fix' approaches to teaching and learning that had its origins in Academies before also infecting those LA schools that had to compete with them. The demise of the vocational alternative scam and the introduction of more cognitively demanding questions in GCSE papers is revealing the limitations of this kind of teaching and the curriculum frameworks that were designed to exploit them.

There really is no substitute for teaching for understanding if educational standards are really to be raised. Although this is not necessarily the same as rising aggregate exam grades in schools, more rigorous assessment at GCSE is revealing the limitations of the quick fix methods led by Academies that have corrupted the English education system.

Many on the left don't like this argument partly because New Labour was largely responsible for this corruption but also because it is uncomfortable for the teaching unions to have to admit that the spectacular rising standards of the early years of this century were largely an illusion, albeit not one that teachers should be blamed for. (See 1.10 of 'Learning Matters').

The legacy of this lives on. For example, although starting KS4 in Y9 no longer facilitates multiple entries in the same subject, schools can still perceive advantages in getting a high proportion of students to achieve C grades in Y10 so that further accreditations that count in league tables can follow in Y11.

I understand that the Perry Beeches Academy Chain, one of whose schools has just had an 'inadequate' judgement from OfSTED, start KS4 in Y9.

I would argue that KS3 is very important for developmental reasons and that students' cognitive growth opportunities are maximised through a carefully planned KS3 curriculum rich in the sorts of learning activities that promote the 'growth mindset' culture of Dweck, Claxton, the Mathematics Resilience movement and of course Shayer and Adey and others described in Part 5 of 'Learning Matters'. This is a different developmental culture, which leads to greater ultimate 'learning capacity' (Claxton) as well as improved exam results. Such 'learning capacity' development is life changing in terms of aspiration and empowerment of individual students of all abilities.

The relevance of this to Henry's post is to propose that some of this is being picked up by his school improvement data and it is the schools that have adopted the quick fix culture (led by Labour's sponsored Academies) that are performing worse than those schools (mainly LA community schools) that have been least infected by this culture.

Barry Wise's picture
Mon, 03/08/2015 - 14:04


Why do you ascribe the quick fixes and attempts to game the system to marketisation and neo-liberalism? Really they began as rational responses to the requirements of the Blair/Brown top-down "target culture". That was surely more of a socialist-managerialist approach than a free market, competition-driven one, wasn't it?

Roger Titcombe's picture
Mon, 03/08/2015 - 14:55

No, because a socialist-managerialist approach would have retained state assets, not privatised them. The belief was that a culture that combined business-led management with the creation of an artificial market was bound to raise standards. The same (equally disastrous) ideology was behind the creation of Foundation Trust hospitals. It is true that New Labour could not resist adding its own target culture and 'zero tolerance of failure' claptrap that made a fundamentally bad idea even worse. I believe I am right that both the Academies (privatisation of education enabling) and the Foundation Trust hospitals (privatisation of the NHS) bills, not replicated in Scotland, did not have the support of the majority of Labour MPs and were only passed because of the support of the conservative opposition.

Not a single Labour shadow member including Ed Miliband had the nous and the guts to recognise these disastrous mistakes, yet the media is astonished at Jeremy Corbyn's popularity and that Liz Kendall is a hopeless fourth in the Labour leadership contest.

Add new comment

Already a member? Click here to log in before you comment. Or register with us.