The unprecedented expansion of academies via conversion or sponsorship has raised concerns about increased segregation of pupils, researchers* from the London School of Economics (LSE) noted. These worries were partly warranted: the intake of academies which became sponsored after 2010 became skewed towards disadvantaged children while converter academies enrol fewer such children. The authors wrote, ‘This suggests that, at least along this dimension, schools are becoming more stratified.’
More research is needed, the researchers argued, so the alleged benefits of a more autonomous school system can come to the fore and negative effects such as segregation be diminished. The ‘mechanisms’ contributing to this stratification, whether school admission practices or parental choice, need to be examined if policies designed to (allegedly) give schools more autonomy are to have the desired positive effects.
The researchers reminded readers that academies are not one homogeneous group. Labour sponsored academies differ from those which became sponsored during the Coalition years. The academic ‘quality’ of the intake of the former improved after become a sponsored academy more than is the case with the latter. There are, however, enough similarities between the two types of sponsored academies to extrapolate the findings from Labour sponsored academies to Coalition ones.
This is not the case with converter academies, most of which were already Good or better. Lessons cannot be drawn from sponsored academies and applied to converters because ‘there is too little overlap between the nature of these academies and the Labour batch to warrant any meaningful extrapolation.’
This caveat is unlikely to stop politicians and the media doing just that. It’s not the first time LSE researchers have warned not to apply conclusions about Labour academies to the Government’s academies programme. Stephen Machin, one of the co-authors of the research discussed above, complained results from an earlier LSE paper which painted a relatively positive picture of Labour’s academies had been hi-jacked to give support to the Coalition’s academy conversion programme.
However, there is one repeated statement in both LSE papers I take issue with. This is the claim that academies enjoy significantly more freedom than non-academies. This is not true. The Academies Commission (2013) found non-academies can do most things academies can do. The Education Select Committee (2015) confirmed this:
‘The vast majority of academy freedoms are also available to maintained schools, if they choose to exercise them’ (page 21 here).
It’s also becoming increasingly clear that academies in multi-academy trusts (MATs) can have far less freedom than stand-alone academies or schools under local authority stewardship. Such academies can be little more than branches in a chain run from head office – common curriculum, common ‘brand’ and even common ways of teaching.
*Andrew Eyles, Stephen Machin, Olmo Silva, CEP Discussion Paper No 1370 September 2015 Academies 2: The New Batch, downloadable here. Summary by authors in The Conversation.