The minister, misleading claims and the unfortunate truth: non academies improve faster than similar academies

Henry Stewart's picture

As the Education and Adoption Bill goes through the Lords, the government continues to justify it its claims for sponsored academies. For instance Lord Nash claimed, in a letter to peers on 21st October, that "primary sponsored academies are improving faster than all state-funded schools". At the committee stage of the Bill in the Commons on 7th July a similar claim was made and this debate (extracted from the full discussion) took place: Nick Gibb: "Those underperforming schools that have been converted to a sponsored academy have, over a four-year period, seen their grades rise by, on average, 6.4 percentage points compared with 1% for local authority-maintained schools in the same period." Kevin Brennan: "Is he comparing that improvement with figures for schools in similar circumstances that have adopted other means of school improvement?" Nick Gibb: "My understanding is that those schools that have been sponsored academies for four years have improved their grades by about 6.4% compared with local authority schools over the same period." (ie, No) For the last four years, since the data was first released, this has been the standard claim of government ministers. The improvement in sponsored academies is compared to the improvement in all schools, despite the fact that sponsored academies are starting from a lower base and therefore are more likely to improve.

If this discussion were in health

Let us imagine a similar discussion in health: Minister: "Our new type of hospital results in sick patients improving their health at a faster rate than the overall population." Questioner: "Are you comparing these patients to patients in other hospitals, in a similar condition?" Minister: "No, we are comparing their improvement to the improvement in the overall population." Questioner: "But that is silly. The overall population is, on average, pretty well and not likely to improve their health further. Surely you should compare your patients to sick patients in other hospitals." Minister: "No, we prefer to compare them to the overall population. And the health of sick patients in our new hospitals improves more than that of the overall population." Questioner: "Is the idea that if you repeat it enough, people won't notice the flawed comparison?" Minister: "Patients who are sick and in our new type of hospital improve their health at a faster rate than the overall population." This would be absurd. And Nick Gibb and Lord Nash must both know this. The question is not whether an underperforming sponsored academy can improve faster than schools that are already achieving well for their pupils. The question is whether, as Kevin Brennan asked, a sponsored academy results in improvement "for schools in similar circumstances that have adopted other means of school improvement".

DfE accepted in the High Court that the valid comparison is with similar schools

The government knows that this is the only valid comparison. In the High Court in June 2014 the DfE accepted that those that start from a low point get the largest increase: “Mr Herrington, Director of the Academies Group within the Department for Education, in his second witness statement states (at para 15) that the Secretary of State does recognise that the improvement in attainment seen in schools is related to their starting point, and in general, those with the lowest initial attainment will see the largest improvements.” Source: Judgement, Warren & LB Barking v Sec of State, para 55, hearing: 25 June 2014 Accepting this point the DfE produced analysis comparing the performance of sponsored academies with maintained schools starting from a similar point. On the basis of 2011-12 data, they claimed not the five times or six times higher result but a "marginally higher" increase. That was at a time when the GCSE benchmark included "equivalents" such as Btecs.

Why do non academies perform so much better than similar sponsored academeis?

In more recent years the DfE cannot even make the "marginally higher" claim for sponsored academies. Whether you look at 2014-2015, 2013-2015 or 2012-2015, if sponsored academies are compared to similar non-academies then the non academies consistently perform better. Here is the comparison for 2012-15:

Is it time to start asking what it is about maintained schools that make them so much more effective, and what we can learn from that for the underpeforming schools in the academy sector?  

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Roger Titcombe's picture
Tue, 10/11/2015 - 16:21

This is another important post from Henry Stewart in which he shows that government claims for school improvement of Academies compared with LA Schools are not supported by the evidence.

In his previous analysis Henry found that on average Academies and LA school's improvement rates were broadly comparable when the starting point taken was schools with similar levels of exam scores; ie there is no 'Academy effect' as claimed by the government.

His latest analysis shows that since Henry's earlier study the 'Academy effect' has now been found to exist. The problem for the government is that it is negative, not positive; LA schools do better.

Section 3 of my book, 'Learning Matters' is entitled,'Spectacular School Improvement'. Those that have read my book will be unsurprised by this finding. Since the demise of the 'vocational scam' the headline results of most schools have declined, but Academies have declined faster than LA Schools. This is because on average Academies made more use of the vocational scam than LA schools. It is just not me that is saying this. This report from the right wing think tank Civitas makes the same point.

De Waal, A., (2009) The Secret of Academy's Success. Civitas Report.
Available free on-line

Academies in the UK and Charter Schools in the US are the product of the Global Education Reform Movement (GERM). Janet has written at length about GERM on LSN. It was very much a creation of GW Bush and Tony Blair. It is based on the ideology of the improving power of the free market in all circumstances, including as applied to schools and education systems. In the US it is a model adopted by the Democrats including President Obama as well as the Republicans. Here in the UK it was first introduced by New Labour, and is still advocated by the Labour establishment. The Conservatives delight in the platform for the total domination of GERM that New Labour created for them. At last Jeremy Corbyn's Labour Party has started the fight back. Educationalists in the UK have always tended to reject the ideology on the wholly reasonable grounds that it has never been supported by the evidence, locally or globally.

Central to GERM is the belief in the transformative power of hero superheads inspired by the GERM philosophy and the simplistic, frequently (wrong) common sense approaches to running to schools. This narrative has been documented by numerous posts on LSN, where all too often the tranformative gloss has faded badly as the narrative has developed.

It is important to recognise that the same process has taken place in the US, where 'Charter Schools' are the equivalent of our Academies and Free Schools. Diane Ravitch is the educationalist who has probably done most of the evidence based debunking of GERM. An active on-line blogger is Nancy Bailey. Her latest post questions the innovation that is supposed to be liberated by the free market ideology. She analyses what has changed in Charter Schools and the similarities with the 'innovations' with our Academies and Free Schools will be recognisable. You will find it here.

The answer to her rhetorical question is 'not very much', which is backed up by Henry's latest analysis. It is not just that LA Schools are outperforming Academies when any proper comparison is made, but LA Schools are also more innovative.

Take a look at Carr Manor School in Leeds as an example. (Google it).

I will post more about this school shortly.

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