Minister admits academies ‘not necessarily better’

Janet Downs's picture
Schools minister Nick Gibb has admitted academies and free school are ‘not necessarily better’ than maintained schools during a recent speech.

This seeming turn around comes after years of Department for Education (DfE) propaganda saying how academies and free schools are better than ‘council run’ schools.

This was always nonsense. Much of the comparison between academies and other schools hinged on comparing the rate of improvement of sponsored academies and either all other schools or non-academy local authority (LA) maintained schools. Sponsored academies were mainly schools which had been underperforming while the latter group were schools covering the whole spectrum of performance. The rate of improvement of sponsored academies was, therefore, calculated from a lower base.

At the same time, results in academies were more likely to be inflated by the use of equivalent exams. The DfE was forced to admit in the High Court that sponsored academies performed no better than similar schools when equivalent exams were removed.

It’s only just over a fortnight since Gibb said how primary school SAT results vindicated the expansion of the ‘valuable academies programme’ to primary schools. So what does this apparent reversal actually mean?

Gibb lets the cat out of the bag later in the speech. Government policies have allowed the development of a new education ‘ecosystem’ which, according to Gibb, gave schools greater freedom and allowed new approaches to flourish.

It’s true the ecosystem has evolved. It’s more fragmented than it was. It’s increased the emphasis on exam results. It's paved the way for schools to be run for profit. It’s allowed the rapid growth of academy chains.

Academies in multi-academy trusts haven’t always benefited from the promised autonomy. Many find they’re under more control from the trust’s central office than they experienced when under LA stewardship. In any case, schools haven’t been under LA control since Local Management of Schools was introduced over 25 years ago, if they ever were. And non-academies can do most things academies can do.

So do schools flourish in this evolved ecosystem? Not necessarily. If schools are swallowed by a chain, they may have to conform to a centrally-mandated ethos. Schools are more likely to stick to traditional methods rather than risk new approaches*. And in the race to constantly improve results, schools are more likely to teach to the test than encourage deep learning.

Perhaps ministers are changing tack. Faced with growing evidence that academies and free schools are no better than other types of school, they are pushing the line that the academy/free school programme has encouraged all schools to improve results. But it’s difficult to distinguish between ‘good’ and ‘poor’ schools using exam results alone*.

Government policies increasing choice and competition, as the academies/free school programme is alleged to do, have a downside. Schools in competition with each other are less likely to cooperate. It risks increasing segregation*. And money is diverted from education to non-education purposes such as marketing*. Schools act in their own interest rather than in the interest of the education system as a whole.

It appears, then, ministers may talk less about the success of academies and free schools in relation to non-academies but will puff the alleged positive effects of the whole programme on the entire system. But fragmentation, playing safe and obsessing about results are negative, not positive, outcomes.

UPDATE: 8 September 2015, 16.28. In his speech, Nick Gibb said, '...pupil performance is not the sole aim of a school.' He's absolutely right. It's a pity then that he spends so much time banging on about SAT results, phonics screening results, PISA results... And the Education and Adoption Bill moving through Parliament bypasses Ofsted reports completely if a school's results are low. This sends out one clear message: it's only results that matter.

*Major review of research into whether introducing market forces (eg choice, competition) improved education achievement (OECD 2010). See faq above, Do market forces in education increase achievement and efficiency?
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mistemina's picture
Mon, 07/09/2015 - 15:36

Gove has been outed.

PiqueABoo's picture
Mon, 07/09/2015 - 20:53

He apparently said he didn't believe *all* academies blah-blah-blah and that is not inconsistent with their academy promotion (something I criticised below that vindicating DT article).

I liked the majority of that speech, because my metal image of educational research is a bit like the Alps except composed almost entirely of trash and uncritically received opinion wrapped in vacuous jargon. For me that 'grassroots' interest in high quality research is the by far the sunniest spot in education and I quite enjoy reading some of the associated ideology-free-zone blogs e.g. 'evidenceintopractice'. It's just a pity that it will likely take a long while yet for any genuinely good stuff to get past people with careers invested in an assorted nonsense.

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 08/09/2015 - 15:17

PiqueABoo - in the speech Gibb cites the TV programme 'Are Our Kids Tough Enough: Chinese School' as 'evidence' of the superiority of Chinese teaching methods. It's stretching it a bit to describe this programme as a reliable experiment. Nevertheless, the Chinese methods shown in the programme weren't all explicit instruction of the type Gibb loves. The pupils also did practical stuff and extra help (and praise) was given to a struggling pupil.

Gibb then cited Shanghai as if it was the whole of China. It's stating the obvious to say it isn't - you would think someone so committed to knowledge would know that. And in his comparison of Shanghai and the UK, Gibb conveniently forgot that 25% of the cohort was missing from the city's PISA tests. This makes the results rather suspect.

Gibb cites books which he says challenge the 'prevailing orthodoxy'. But at what stage does challenging the 'orthodoxy' become orthodoxy? Perhaps when schools ministers praise them. As an antidote, I hope he reads and cites Roger Titcombe's book, 'Learning Matters' and our book to be published in November.

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 08/09/2015 - 15:26

Loved the way Gibb praised the EEF Teacher Toolkit which provided evidence from research for and against particular education strategies and then later said teachers shouldn't 'defer all opinion making faculties to that omniscient being "the evidence"'

He's right that evidence should be used to inform teaching - that's why the EEF toolkit is so useful. But he appears to imply evidence should be rejected if it doesn't confirm one's prejudices. And he's not above citing an anecdote if it further his point of view. But one anecdote can't be used to come to generalised conclusions.

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