Academies, free schools and profit – blog fails to debunk “hysterical” article with facts

Janet Downs's picture
A Telegraph article claims to rebuff a “hysterical” Guardian piece about profit-making educational providers by providing a catalogue of facts. But this seemingly robust debunking missed the mark.

FACT re free schools, academies and profit: academies and free schools are managed by charitable trusts but there’s nothing to stop them outsourcing to a for-profit Educational Management Organisation (EMO). IES hopes to make a profit from managing Breckland Free School. Zenna Atkins, who also bid for the Breckland contract, said that "the deconstruction of the education function within local authorities" offered a chance to "make a substantial return to investors”.

FACT re outsourcing school management: the article is correct in saying that this policy began under Labour but that doesn’t make the policy right.

FACT re profit-making academies: the article is correct - there are no academies yet run by for-profit EMOs. But plenty are run by educational charities and these can prove profitable for those who run them. The ex-director of E-Act was the best-paid man in education. And the National Audit Office (NAO) has warned about potential conflicts of interest between academies and sponsors.

FACT re public support for profit-making EMOs: the article is correct – the YouGov poll revealed that support is mixed which is hardly a ringing endorsement for the policy.

FACT re support for academy conversion: the article didn’t mention that the YouGov poll found that the largest group (29%) did not think conversion would make any difference to standards. Neither did it mention the lukewarm support for either conversion or free schools among Tory voters.

FACT re accountability: the article is correct – academies are directly accountable to the Secretary of State for Education. There is no middle tier. Even Mr Gove recognises that this will bring problems and there ought to be an intermediary level – the article didn’t mention that.

FACT re results in academies: only ARK academies are mentioned. Overall, academies performed worse than any other type of school in 2011 – a smaller percentage of pupils reached the benchmark 5+ GCSEs A*-C including Maths and English. This figure is even smaller when the equivalent exams are stripped out.

FACT re Swedish EMOs and results: the evidence cited was from the New Schools Network (NSN) – hardly an unbiased source. The Institute of Education (IoE, 2010) found that “The Swedish experiment (using for-profit private providers) has proved expensive and has not led to significant learning gains overall.”

FACT re “revolving doors”: the Guardian raised concerns about “revolving doors” whereby public sector policy makers subsequently find employment in the private sectors affected by their policies. This could lead to conflicts of interest. The Guardian gave two examples: Zenna Atkins, ex Ofsted chair and now chief executive of Wey Education, and Sir Bruce Liddington, ex-director of E-Act. The Telegraph article said Zenna Atkins was not applying to set up free schools. However, the New Academy Guide believed she was working with seven free school proposers. And ex-schools commissioner, Sir Bruce Liddington, earned £280,816 when he was E-Act’s director general, a post he unexpectedly left last week.

Toby Young, the article’s writer, tried very hard to disprove suspicion about profit-making education providers running English state schools. Why, then, did he tell the TES that for-profit companies should be allowed to “set up, own and operate” schools in England? Perhaps there are grounds for suspicion after all.

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Janet Downs's picture
Sat, 25/02/2012 - 17:28

I should have made it clear that Sir Bruce Liddington earned £280,816 per annum according to the TES article linked by clicking on his name above.

Andrew Old's picture
Sun, 26/02/2012 - 09:38

As ever, you seem completely indifferent to the distinction between fact and opinion.

You might well have found reason to disagree with Toby Young's *opinions*, and agree with Seumas Milne's *opinions*, but on the matter of whose article was factually correct you have said nothing that gives anyone any reason to doubt that Milne's article was factually incorrect on multiple points, and Young's wasn't.

Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 26/02/2012 - 12:03

I do apologise, Andrew, I thought it was obvious that the links I provided were evidence of what I was saying. Perhaps I should put a note at the bottom of each thread to say that "where words are highlighted in blue this indicates that there is a link to evidence which the reader can check to see that I am not making it up." One of the links is to the Telegraph article. If you follow it (highlighted in blue) you will see that Young dismissed much of the Guardian's article - sections of which were reproduced in full - with paragraphs headed FACT. I followed his lead in the thread above. I pointed out when Young's article was correct and underpinned by evidence and when his statements were contradicted by evidence (highlighted in blue).

Perhaps you can explain where the facts in the evidence are only opinion. For example, the DfE's evidence showed that all types of school outperformed academies overall in the 2011 GCSE tables. Is this merely the opinion of the DfE?

Andrew Old's picture
Sun, 26/02/2012 - 12:37

Can you identify any point on which Young's claimed that Milne was factually incorrect and this wasn't the case?

Like I said, you seem keen to add to the policy debate, but the key point of the article was that Milne was *factually* incorrect. It just seems bizarre to look at that article and say "well, let's not worry about who is telling the truth, let's just raise new points".

Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 26/02/2012 - 13:57

If you read the thread very carefully, Andrew, you will see that where Young was factually incorrect I have linked to the evidence (highlighted in blue). And when he was correct, I acknowledged the fact. But where he was economical with the truth (ie by only mentioning the ARK academies when discussing results and ignoring DfE data which shows that academies as a whole underachieved) I have explained why and, again, I provided a link (highlighted in blue). And when he cites a biased source (ie the New Schools Network which has a vested interest in the establishment of free schools) I have countered this with academic evidence (highlighted in blue).

I am puzzled by your reference to "new points". Every one of the points in the thread was raised in Young's article. That's a fact.

Andrew Old's picture
Sun, 26/02/2012 - 16:03

"you will see that where Young was factually incorrect I have linked to the evidence (highlighted in blue)."

Where? Have you found even one factual inaccuracy in the article?

You seem to have decided to critique *details* in the Young article and have refused to even acknowledge the main issue it discussed i.e. whether Milne's article was factually inaccurate. I think you pretty much acknowledge this when you describe the Young article as being a response to "suspicions" rather than to actual claims made.

Do you not see a problem with raising questions about whether the article is biased or selective (two things that this sort of article is expected to be) and ignoring the question of whether it is *right* on its substantial point, i.e. whether the Milne article was factually incorrect?

Allan Beavis's picture
Sun, 26/02/2012 - 17:06

Andrew Old - It is really difficult to tell with your comments whether you have anything to add to threads or whether your mission in life is to apply the brakes to anything Janet so carefully advances with a level of pedantry and pomposity that one suspects you are either secretly envious of Janet's rigour or you are so bogged down by scoring inconsequential points that you are blind to the bigger picture.

I'm sure Toby Young's coterie of supporters and hangers-on cheer him on with every article he pens but it is impossible to read what he writes without knowing that most of his utterances can't be taken at face value. Every word, every sentence, every opinion appears designed to curry favour with right wing politicians and media barons in order to advance his financial and career prospects, now culminated in apparently a political column in The Sun on Sunday, perhaps a reward for the years of Murdoch brown-nosing. Michael Gove as next Prime Minister? Perhaps Toby has his eye on being the next Andy Coulson...?

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Mon, 27/02/2012 - 13:46

Bloggers at the Torygraph get recruited because they say controversial stuff that drives online readership and comment because that's what makes money for the Telegraph.

"FACT: The Anti-Academies Alliance, the organisation behind nearly every "parent-led campaign" against a new academy, is a front for the Socialist Workers' Party. They were Trots last time I checked.!"
hmmmmmm any of you lot trots? I suspect if you've had the trots in the past that would count..... My children have definitely had them so that would be me in -)

But in amongst this garbage Toby makes and interesting and important point. There is indeed still a very substantial cohort of extremely noisy ideologues in the right of the Conservative party who still believe the simple maxim that less organisation = more efficiency. You would think that people with so little life experience that they can still wallow in ideologies which dissolve so rapidly when they encounter reality would not be selected to stand for parliament let along would still be vocally ranting their ignorance nearly 2 years into government but they are and this is the reality we have to deal with.

Nonetheless they are learning and many are beginning to engage with the people who understand what they are talking rather than just labelling them as being ignorant and self interested ideologues about so stick with it guys....

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 27/02/2012 - 13:56

Allan - thank you for your robust defence of my comments. I find it odd that Andrew has to ask where the evidence is when I have pointed out that it is highlighted in blue. However, he may be colour-blind in which case I apologise.

I actually agree with Andrew when he described Young's article as "biased or selective" but not with his opinion that "this sort of article is expected to be". Odd, though, that he says he would expect such an article to be biased and selective while at the same time attacks be for allegedly being biased and selective even though I provide linked evidence (highlighted in blue) from reputable sources so that readers can check their accuracy.

Young made it quite clear he was dealing with FACT (the capitals are his). Where his facts were true, I acknowledged this. Where his facts were false, I rebuffed them with linked evidence (highlighted in blue). Where his facts were blinkered (eg only discussing the results of ARK academies), I pointed this out, again with linked evidence (highlighted in blue).

Old asks me whether I had found "even one factual inaccuracy in the article". At the risk of stating the obvious - yes. These were made clear in the original post with linked evidence (highlighted in blue).

Andrew Old's picture
Mon, 27/02/2012 - 16:54

I am not attacking you for being biased or selective. I am having a go at you for your complete indifference to the truth. You could have started with "Toby Young correctly spotted the many factual inaccuracies in Seumas Milne's article, however, here are my reasons why we should still have doubts about the government's intentions regarding schools" and I wouldn't have said a thing.

Instead, you completely ignored the main substance of Toby Young's article, i.e. that Milne's article was inaccurate, and instead simply dismissed it as "missing the mark" by quibbling over details or introducing new points.

This is what interests me about your posts, and why I often reply to them: the way you seem to care only about expressing your political opinions, and care nothing at all about whether you are being consistent, accurate or on-topic.

I am just fascinated to see whether you are able to acknowledge that Young was right that Milne was inaccurate. Doing so would involve be willing to acknowledge the truth even when it isn't convenient for expressing your opinions. Your usual response when faced with having to admit inconsistency or inaccuracy is to evade and then run away. I'm really just curious to see how long you can do it here.

So, was Young right that Milne was inaccurate? Please tell us.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Mon, 27/02/2012 - 21:49

Well he certainly wasn't right about where the Socialist Worker lot hang out in cyberspace - was he Andrew! :-)

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 27/02/2012 - 14:09

Andrew's pedantic comments risk diverting the thread away from its main topic - whether the suspicions about for-profit EMOs being given the green light to run English state schools are correct. Young tried to debunk these suspicions by "proving" (with FACTS) that they were unfounded. However, many of his facts were false or not-the-whole-truth. While attempting to allay such suspicions, however, Young told the TES that the Government ought to take just such a course of action - allow for-profit EMOs to run English schools*.

Could it be that Young was trying to divert attention from something he hopes will happen surreptitiously? And was he concerned that the Guardian article (which he described as "hysterical") threatened to expose the real reasons behind the Coalition's academy conversion and free school programme?

If Andrew wants more proof of the Government's intentions, then perhaps he should read this earlier thread on this site. The evidence is highlighted in blue.

*the TES article can be found by clicking on the word TES in the final paragraph of the post. It is highlighted in blue.

Andrew Old's picture
Mon, 27/02/2012 - 16:59

"Andrew’s pedantic comments risk diverting the thread away from its main topic"

Or in other words:

"Andrew's insistence that all my arguments be consistent and honest is a distraction from the more important business of making as many arguments as possible".

Toby Young's picture
Mon, 27/02/2012 - 17:15

Speculating about people's "real" motives is a bit rhetorical for you, isn't it Janet? I thought you prided yourself on sticking to the evidence? Sentences beginning "Could it be that ..." are a rarity in your blog posts which I usually rather admire.

Time to concede defeat to Andrew, I think.

Allan Beavis's picture
Mon, 27/02/2012 - 17:18

People speculated on your motives for years and most have them have proved to be correct. Some people are just so transparent even when they try not to be!

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 27/02/2012 - 17:56

Toby - I didn't deliberately intend to be rhetorical - as you point out this is something I rarely do . I was genuinely puzzled, hence the use of question marks.

The short answer is that I don't know your motives and I am quite happy to admit it. But it seemed odd that you tried so hard to produce facts (which weren't all facts as I demonstrated with linked evidence) to debunk the Guardian article and then told the TES that you thought the government should allow what you were at great pains to deny. It was contradictory - hence my confusion.

I will leave it to readers to decide whether I have been defeated. I have provided the evidence - readers can read it if they wish. They can make up their own minds.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Mon, 27/02/2012 - 21:54

You didn't seem to notice my comment to you on the other thread Toby so I'll repeat it here. I did also post it on your Telegraph blog comment section but I understand you may well have missed it there as they deleted it so fast.

Hello Toby,
Isn’t it wonderful when a teacher gives up their free time to run wonderfully inspiring sessions which stretch the academic abilities of teachers while exemplifying best teaching practice? I attended such a session last year on elliptic curves which totally refreshed me.…/intro-elliptic-atm.ppt
Isn’t it wonderful when a teacher gives up their free time to write incredible teaching resources which they then share on the web for free and which I have personally used to great effect with my students.
Isn’t it wonderful when a teacher then creates vidoes to explain those tasks and again shares them for free:
Perhaps you think it’s impressive if a teacher spends years regularly contributing great teaching tasks to teachers journals – again for free – and also writes a column which poignantly describes the realities of teaching.
Ah no – you think -
“The tragic thing about the flight from excellence in our state schools is that teachers like this believe they’re acting in the best interests of their pupils.” and you express your horror that such a person is a teacher.
Nice one Toby. Carefully researched and well judged as ever.

Andrew Old's picture
Mon, 27/02/2012 - 20:34

"But it seemed odd that you tried so hard to produce facts (which weren’t all facts as I demonstrated with linked evidence)"

Did you? Which one of Toby's facts have you demonstrated wasn't a fact?

Toby Young's picture
Mon, 27/02/2012 - 23:47

Rebecca, your comment doesn't invite a response since it merely confirms what I acknowledged in my Telegraph piece, namely, that the teacher in question has good intentions.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Wed, 29/02/2012 - 07:55

Ah yes - we do so cherish this culture in journalism.

You don't give a @@@@ what damage you do just so long as you don't expose yourself to being sued.

I suppose you feel it is necessary to get rid of columnists who've spent 30 years teaching and command the respect of all in their profession. Why should they block up the column inches which cleared to make way for you to impart your wisdom?

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Wed, 29/02/2012 - 10:57

I understand, Toby, that you come from a world where totally egocentric and selfish values are considered to be normal.

But you should understand that teachers will be relentlessly genuinely shocked by you because are a vocational profession where people with your value set are screened out at the interviews for BEds, PGCEs and jobs.

This is why Hayek's economics theories fall apart completely in state education you know Toby - because he assumes that altruism does not exist.....

Anyway I'm sure this clarification will just be cause for celebration for you as more controversy = more traffic through your blog = more money and status.

and I'm sure you will excuse me while I quietly vomit in the corner.

Toby Young's picture
Mon, 27/02/2012 - 18:02

I don't think there's any contradiction. I would like for-profit EMOs to play a greater role in England's taxpayer-funded education sector, but the fact is they aren't – which is why only one taxpayer-funded school has let a management contract to a for-profit EMO in this Parliament.

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 27/02/2012 - 20:56

Toby - this Parliament hasn't ended yet. It's still got about three years to go. And IES has bid for other schools although not been successful - the City of Peterborough Academy was one. According to New Academy Guide, Wey Education were working with seven free school proposers. Nord Anglia was working with a proposed Steiner school. And there are the primary schools lined up for enforced conversion. The list of proposed sponsors of targeted Birmingham primaries posted on LSN gave the names of for-profit EMOs.

Toby Young's picture
Mon, 27/02/2012 - 23:54

As I've said numerous times, Janet, I'd be surprised if more than handful of these hybrids are established in the next few years because of the complexity of the legal and regulatory frameworks that have to be navigated. My view is that for-profit EMOs won't enter the sector in a big way until they're permitted to set up, own and operate taxpayer-funded schools (i.e. absolved of the need to enter into partnerships with charitable trusts) and that's unlikely to happen during this Parliament. If I prove to be wrong about that, I will happily eat humble pie.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Tue, 28/02/2012 - 12:05

It does rather seem that things aren't going entirely to plan at present.

Henry Stewart's picture
Mon, 27/02/2012 - 21:36

Toby, I'm delighted you an admirer of Janet's robust, well researched and factual posts. We all think she is great too. And I think this rebuttal of your article is a fine example of her work.

Andrew asks which of your facts has has rebutted. Well, the one on academy results for a start (as you know, I have some interest in this subject). Your fact (that Ark schools and good results) is correct but Janet points out that this in no way is an answer to Seamus' point. he states that the 249 sponser-led academies under-performed. To say in response - but the six Ark schools did really well - in no way contradicts what he said. Indeed the fact you, and Fraser Nelson, focus on the performance of just six schools suggests you know that academies as a whole have not done so well.

And, as Janet points out, the core point is that "the suspicions about for-profit EMOs being given the green light to run English state schools are correct". Your argument against this is "most Conservatives I know are frustrated that Michael Gove isn't doing enough to privatise English education". You know, somehow that isn't very reassuring.

Now if you'd said 'I don't know any Tories who want to see education privatised', that would have been a reassuring rebuttal. But to tell us lots of Tories are raring for privatisation of education, and suggesting you support it too, seems to me to back up what Seamus was saying. Our worry is that everything will be in place for a second Tory term (without the Liberals) to lead to privatised schools. That may seem a good idea to you, but I suspect it won't be to the majority of voters.

Allan Beavis's picture
Mon, 27/02/2012 - 22:15

Well I suspect that the British public would be as repelled by the privatisation of state schools as they currently are over health reforms. A Guardian/ICM poll revealed that the Tories are down by four percentage points in a single month, slipping from 40% to 36% since January. The advantage they had at the new year has been squandered by this open attack on a public service - expect more voters turning away when they realise that privatisation was always the end game. So it is up to the Right's guard dogs to throw people off the scent to hang on to a few more voters before the next election.

As more and more people understand that Academies have not - and do not - perform better than LA maintained schools (as this site has revealed), so they will realise that local authorities have been systematically trashed by the Tories and their supporters not because they are all uniformly incompetent or bureaucratic, but because Gove and his fellow Atlantic Bridge cronies want to hand the services they provide to schools over to profit making companies.

Toby Young's picture
Tue, 28/02/2012 - 00:41

I followed your exchange of tweets with Sam Freedman, Henry, and it's clear that nearly all the "research evidence" you and others have produced to demonstrate that maintained schools are out-performing academies is flawed thanks to selection bias. I agree with Sam that the most robust and comprehensive piece of research carried out so far is Machin and Vernoit's paper for the Centre for the Economics of Education. They conclude as follows:
"Our results suggest that moving to a more autonomous school structure through academy conversion generates a significant improvement in the quality of pupil intake, a significant improvement in pupil performance and small significant improvements in the performance of pupils enrolled in neighbouring schools. These results are strongest for the schools that have been academies for longer and for those who experienced the largest increase in their school autonomy. These findings matter from an economic perspective, in that they suggest the increased autonomy and flexible governance enabled by academy conversion may have had the scope to sharpen incentives to improve performance. They also matter from a public policy standpoint because recent years have seen the increased prevalence of an education system that is being allowed to become more and more autonomous. In essence, the results paint a (relatively) positive picture of the academy schools that were introduced by the Labour government of 1997-2010. The caveat is that such benefits have, at least for the schools we consider, taken a while to materialise."

My point about the frustration that many Conservatives feel about the slow pace of the government's education reforms wasn't intended to reassure Left-wing defenders of top-down, one-size-fits-all state education that all was rosy in the garden so I'm not quite sure what point you think you're scoring there. Far from backing up what Seamus was saying – that hundreds of taxpayer-funded schools are already being run by for-profit EMOs, which is what he appears to think many of the multi-academy sponsors are – it flatly contradicts it.

Whether there's anything in the next Conservative manifesto committing the party to permitting for-profit EMOs to set up, own and operate taxpayer-funded schools remains to be seen, but I certainly hope there is and I don't think it will be a vote-loser. I summarised the latest YouGov polling on education policy in my response to one of Seamus's points: "The YouGov poll Seumas links to reveals that the public is split on the issue of whether free schools should be able to let management contracts to for-profit EMOs: 24% are in favour, 48% are opposed and 28% don't know. Asked specifically about Breckland, 30% supported the decision to bring in IES, 41% opposed it and 29% didn't know. Overall, 27% thought turning more schools into academies would raise standards, against 24% who thought it would make them worse."

The most striking thing about that poll was how many "don't knows" there are. It seems to me that the question of how large a part for-profit EMOs should play in taxpayer-funded education is one that the electorate has yet to make up its mind about. What we should be doing is having a proper debate about it, instead of pretending it's happening already. One of the most frustrating things about these policy debates in education is that they're almost always about secondary issues – proxy wars rather than the real thing.

My view, which I've expressed before, is that the issue doesn't turn on whether *all* taxpayer-funded schools run by for-profit EMOs in any one region perform, on average, better than *all* taxpayer-funded schools run by the state/public officials in that region. It's clear that the evidence is mixed if that's your starting point. Rather, it's whether *some* for-profit EMOs perform better than *comparable* taxpayer-funded schools – and it's clear that *some* do, IES being a case in point. This suggests that creating an efficient market in this sector, removing barriers to entry and exit, will drive up standards in the long run.

Andrew Old's picture
Tue, 28/02/2012 - 05:23

"Andrew asks which of your facts has has rebutted."

No, I asked which of his facts has turned out to be "factually incorrect".

I'm quite aware of what political points can be argued over. My interest here has always been with Janet's attitude to the truth rather than the political issue. In particular, her inability to acknowledge factual inaccuracies in an article which agrees with her, and her constant fudging of her disagreements with Toby into the suggestion that Toby was factually inaccurate. I just find it fascinating that she combines frequent use of "here are the facts/evidence" rhetoric with what seems to be complete indifference to both truth and consistency.

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 28/02/2012 - 07:44

Toby - if you listen to the Radio 4 programme, The Report, about primary schools broadcast last week (available on Listen Again - no time limit) you will hear Stephen Machin, one of the authors of the LSE report, saying it was not possible to apply his findings to converter academies, which were not the same as sponsored academies, or primary schools, which are smaller.

You quote at length from the LSE report and I'm please you included the warning about benefits taking a while - probably because the increased quality of intake found by the researchers takes a while to work through to GCSE. The researchers also said more time was needed to assess fully whether academy conversion was beneficial. An earlier National Audit Office report (2010) found that the gap between disadvantaged pupils and advantaged pupils widened in academies suggesting that it was advantaged pupils who benefitted not the disadvantaged ones that the academies were specifically set up to help.

Henry Stewart's picture
Tue, 28/02/2012 - 09:23

Toby, I'm delighted you followed the tweet exchange between myself and Sam Friedman. Christopher Cook of the FT has kindly offered to put our data interpretations to independent experts and I have twice tweeted Sam to suggest this. Oddly, he hasn't responded and doesn't seem keen on an independent assessment of the data.

Please explain where you see selection bias. I've taken the comparison from every angle I can think of:

Comparison by similar levels of disadvantage
Comparison by similar levels of GCSE results in 2008
Comparison by similar levels of GCSE result in 2010
Comparison with chains only
Comparison with establish academies only
Comparison based on expected progress in Maths and English

I've even taken the precise stat on which the DfE this year has been resting its claims, growth from 2010 to 2011 in academies over two years old excluding CTC and Independent conversion. On each and every one of these comparisons academies do at best only as well as non-academies.

Here's my challenge, Toby: Tell me what you think is a fair comparison without selection bias, I will add what I think is fair. We then hand both over to Christopher Cook, for him to get the academics to look at.

Will you accept the challenge?

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Tue, 28/02/2012 - 12:11

Indeed we do get bogged down in their being no evidence to verify Gove's policies.

But sadly this does seem to be unexpectedly necessary as they should, of course, have fallen down due to it being impossible to validate them through the proper consultations process which are designed to prevent policies which will clearly not fit for purpose becoming law.

Nobody expected all consultation processes to be completely subverted.

Nobody expected the Spanish inquisition.

Strange old world.

Toby Young's picture
Tue, 28/02/2012 - 10:19

Hand over to Christopher Cook, the education journalist who's been on 18-month crusade to discredit Michael Gove and his Special Advisors? You might as well suggest handing the data over to Fiona Millar.

Toby Young's picture
Tue, 28/02/2012 - 10:44

More seriously Henry we'll always run up against the difficulty of selecting a research body with the authority to make a definitive judgement whom we're both happy with. Loathe though I am to suggest that a new quango be created, what's needed is the educational equivalent of the Office of Budget Responsibility. If such an organisation did exist, I expect it would say there's insufficient data about the performance of convertor academies to make a definitive judgement since they're so new. But most of the international research evidence points to a clear link between greater operational autonomy for schools and improved performance. Take a look at this study of the Flemish secondary school system in Belgium, for instance:

Allan Beavis's picture
Tue, 28/02/2012 - 10:27

Toby -

Rather than another hysterical outburst, why don't you answer Henry's question and explain where you see the selection bias? The analysis is based on DfE data.

Fiona Millar's picture
Tue, 28/02/2012 - 11:21

I thought Labour was proposing an independent body to evaluate education research.

Henry Stewart's picture
Tue, 28/02/2012 - 17:58

Toby, thanks for that. I have to admit thats a new one on me. Will read with interest. Youa re presumably aware of the Stanford research into charter schools across 16 US states: Shows only 17% of charter schools perform above average, while 37% perform below average. Certainly not a ringing endorsement for autonomy.

But let's come back to the UK. We have the most comprehensive set of educational data ever released in this country (and possibly in any country). Please explain where you think there is selection bias in the analysis I've done. Sam Friedman suggested I'd omitted some of the star academies but Mossbourne is included in the comparison by deprivation, and both are in the 2010/11 comparison.

But the key point is that this is not independent research. The data is there and provided by DfE. Its just which comparisons we want to make.

Let me ask again: what selection or comparison would you accept from this comprehensive set of data?

Leonard James's picture
Tue, 28/02/2012 - 20:07

I think it is pretty clear that I'm not a friend of the LSN and I've opined on my blog about the negativity towards the WLFS on this website. However I can't side with Toby Young on this for two reasons.

1. I've been looking at the data set from the DfE and am getting similar results to Henry - in some cases the academies are getting significantly worse results than every other type of state school. (Performance measure - proportion of students getting 5 A*-C GCSE's inc English and Maths).

2. I have a lot of problems with Machin and Vernoit's research mainly because it doesn't seem to shed any light on what the academies are actually doing. Personal experience says that academy heads are gaming the system which some of Henry's analysis seems to confirm.

I have blogged about the research here

Toby Young's picture
Tue, 28/02/2012 - 00:48

Allan, I'm afraid I've never heard of "Atlantic Bridge", though I am an Atlanticist. The reason I'm a conservative is not because I see it as a way to make a bit of money, as you suggest. As James Delingpole points out in his excellent new book Watermelons, you're much more likely to make money as a worker in the knowledge economy if you sign up to the liberal-Left agenda.

If you're genuinely interested in why I'm a conservative, I wrote an essay on that very subject:

David Hawkins's picture
Tue, 28/02/2012 - 07:01

"Allan, I’m afraid I’ve never heard of “Atlantic Bridge”, though I am an Atlanticist.
You're paid to know these things. It was in your paper a lot recently!!!
The way in which the supporters of current government policy seem to be be selective in the presentation of facts or obstructing information coming in to the public domain creates a feeling of suspicion about their ultimate motives. The reaction to the Milne article is a case in point. He suggests that there is a wish in the governing party to privatise services, you rebut this as scaremongering yet at the same time suggest that the conservatives as a group want exactly this policy. I may have misunderstood the nuances of the argument, but you seem to be having your cake and eating it.

Allan Beavis's picture
Tue, 28/02/2012 - 08:52


I am surprised you've never heard of them. Have you heard of Liam Fox, or Michael Gove, both Atlantic Bridge alumni. Are you suffering from willfull blindness as well? I think it's expedient for you to be Conservative. Your zealous declaration to the party and brown nosing (like "dunce", your descrption, not mine) of press barons has finally afforded you the profile you dreamt of decades ago.

The fellow self publicist James Delingpole you are now promoting - this is the same shrinking violet who claimed to have been "intellectually raped" during a polite debate on alternative treatments, accused the people who run London zoo as having "eco-fascist leanings" and who says little of substance but much that is ill informed and designed to ensure that he rouses enough comment to ensure he isn’t booted off the Telegraph Blog parade?

For a proper critique of Watermelons, read this:

Toby Young's picture
Tue, 28/02/2012 - 10:27

No, no, no, Allan. That's an ideologically-motivated hatchet job by a self-described "environmental activist". For a proper, fair-minded assessment of Watermelons read this review by Matt Ridley in this week's Spectator:

For Ridley's credentials, see here:

Allan Beavis's picture
Tue, 28/02/2012 - 11:43

Yes, Yes, Yes, Toby. I've just brunch, so I'm not interested in making myself nauseuos reading about James Delingpole so I won't thanks. A fair-minded and impartial review of Delingpole in The Spectator would seem to be about as likely as Fraser Nelson penning an article in which he attacked the ideology of Free Schools. Would you agree that much of your own writing can be described fairly as "ideologically-motivated hatchet jobs"? Will you explain where the selection bias is please?

Melissa Benn's picture
Tue, 28/02/2012 - 08:06

David's last comment is spot on about the new school reformers wanting to have their cake and eat it. 'Privatisation? Complete myth; Trot inspired scaremongering...etc' 'Privatisation? Excellent idea let's do more of it....etc.' . In fact, it rather reminds me of the 'comprehensive grammar' idea..... don't hear so much about that these days, I notice.

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 28/02/2012 - 18:11

Reply to Toby above - the Government isn't looking at the results of converter academies when it praises the rate of achievement in academies. It is considering only the results of those academies who had GCSE cohorts in 2010 and 2011 so that a comparison can be made. These were sponsored academies set up under Labour. The DfE Stats First Release for GCSE 2011 publishes a graph which indicates that sponsored academies as a group had a smaller percentage of pupils reaching the benchmark of 5+ GCSEs A*-C including Maths and English than any other type of schools.

In your Telegraph article you mentioned only ARK academies. However, by featuring only one chain then this ignores all the other academies that have done poorly, so poorly in fact that they pull down the overall results for academies to the worst of any type of school. There may well be reasons for this - St Adhelm's, Poole, is really a secondary modern. However, the Government push a "no excuses" mantra and would not accept this excuse from a non-academy school.

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 28/02/2012 - 18:14

Toby - you are correct about the YouGov poll and how it shows the large number of "don't knows". This is especially remarkable given the relentless promotion of academies pouring out of the DfE and the large number of media articles who churn this propaganda. What is especially remarkable is the number of Conservative voters who voted against flagship government education policies.

A guest's picture
Tue, 28/02/2012 - 20:59

Toby has quoted from the Machin and Vernoit paper.
“Our results suggest that moving to a more autonomous school structure through academy conversion generates a significant improvement in the quality of pupil intake, a significant improvement in pupil performance and small significant improvements in the performance of pupils enrolled in neighbouring schools. '
If every school becomes an academy how can they all have 'a significant improvement in quality of pupil intake ' ???

Leonard James's picture
Tue, 28/02/2012 - 21:27

Agreed and what is more Machin and Vernoit seem unable to shed any light on how the increased autonomy manifests itself to generate the improvements mentioned in their report.

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 29/02/2012 - 09:59

Stephen Machin told BBC Radio 4 "The Report" that it was not possible to apply the LSE research to sponsored academies, which were established from under-performing schools or new schools in areas of disadvantage, to converter academies, which were mainly good or outstanding schools, or to primary schools which are smaller.

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 29/02/2012 - 09:45

To Toby - reply to post above in which you say that international evidence finds a link between school autonomy and results. You are correct and OECD found the British schools already had considerable freedom in 2009:

The only additional freedoms which academies have are the ability to spend that small amount of the budget kept back by LAs for back room services and the ability to set staff pay and conditions. But if schools join academy chains they may find themselves with less autonomy than they enjoyed when LA schools. See evidence by John Burn, OBE, to Education Bill Committee: “Putting Academies into Federations can lead to individual Academies losing a large measure of control over their budgets and the appointment of staff, something which even maintained schools enjoy.”

This criticism equally applies to education providers, whether profit-making or not. And profit-making EMOs could put pressure on their schools to purchase services, resources and so on from them. The National Audit Office 2010 warned about a conflict of interest between sponsors and their academies.

BBC Radio 4, "The Report" pointed out that academy chains imposed conditions which went against the much-hyped autonomy supposedly enjoyed by academies.

Toby, can you confirm that in your book "How To Set Up a Free School" you say that when discussing sponsorship of free schools. “…the parent group might have a role on the marketing side, trying to drum up custom and so forth, but beyond that no input”? There doesn't seem to be much autonomy there.

The only extra control over budgets that academies have is over that small part kept back by LAs. This is so insignificant that the Department for Education can wholeheartedly say:

“Schools have autonomy over the use of their budgets and so it is for heads and governors to determine at school level how to secure better value for money”
From Q and A Schools Funding Settlement 2012-13 including Pupil Premium: downloadable from:


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