Civitas claims that Academies lack transparency -so we cant judge their success


 A new report from the centre right think tank Civitas claims that it is impossible to determine accurately whether or not Academies are making headway because they are not fully transparent about their results and there is a strong indication that many are opting for what might be described ,by some ,as soft qualifications.

 There are 200 Academy schools up and running with a further 100 planned for the next academic year. Mainly based in disadvantaged areas, with socially deprived intakes, Academies, normally with private sponsors, enjoy more autonomy and freedom over the curriculum than other local authority secondary schools.

 Although starting from a low base, the official view is that most, though not all, are improving their results quicker than equivalent state schools. The National Audit Office (NAO), for instance, reported in 2007, that GCSE performance is improving faster in Academies than in any other types of school, including those in similar circumstances.

 Elizabeth Reid, Chief Executive Specialist Schools and Academies Trust, said in September 2009 “The academies programme is making a real difference to the life chances of young people with exam results improving at twice the national rate”. The Secretary of State for Education said in September 2009 that the overall performance of academies has been very positive with the vast majority reporting improved results in 2009 and GCSE results are improving at over twice the national average. Schools Minister, Vernon Coaker MP, added, this month “Academies are working. For the 62 with results in both 2008 and 2009, provisional results show the increase in the number of pupils getting five A*-C grades including English and maths is twice the national average” Much of this apparent success has been put down to the autonomy of these schools and sponsors support.

 But not all is as it first seems, according the Civitas report ‘The Secret of Academies Success-Anastasia de Waal. The press release accompanying the report headlined ‘ ‘Academies’ ‘success’ a sham? Survey exposes dumbing down at flagship schools ‘pretty much sums up where the report is coming from. The study says that Academies exam performance success at GCSE has contributed significantly to both Labour and the Conservatives commitment to a rapid roll-out of the programme. In light of this commitment it is important, the study says, to be able to identify what it is about Academies which is generating these improved results. This is particularly so as the cost of establishing and running an Academy is considerably higher than that of a mainstream maintained school. But Civitas, claims that Academies lack transparency and we are largely kept in the dark about what Academies are actually doing. This is a damaging charge given the amount of taxpayers money invested in these schools, and against the backdrop of attempts to make our public institutions and schools in particular more transparent and accountable. Academies should surely be treated like other secondary schools in their information requirements. Unless, there is a compelling reason not to do so, which is not as things stand apparent. The report says that Academies are not subject to the transparency required by mainstream maintained schools. Unlike all other publicly funded schools, Academies are not currently subject to the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act (ironically, perhaps, the quango responsible for Academies –the SSAT, as private company, is not subject to the FOA either and its hard to get information from it too ).

 The report continues “A main consequence of Academies exemption from FOI is that we do not know how they are achieving their results at GCSE level. That is, we do not know which subjects their headline A*-C percentages have been achieved in. As Academies are not required by law to produce an account of their GCSE and equivalent results broken down by subject, they cannot be demanded’

 So the only results which are made available for Academies are their figures for the numbers of students achieving five or more A*-C GCSEs and equivalent, and five or more A*-C GCSEs including maths and English. We do not know from these headline figures which subjects, and indeed which type of qualifications, students in Academies are doing well in. There is a strong suspicion that many are using weak vocational qualifications to bolster their results. However the bottom line is this: knowing so little about what is happening in Academies, it is impossible to make a sound judgment on them, concludes Civitas. In the case of subject-level exam results this is not because the evidence is not there but because it has not been scrutinized. Whilst the government has expressly asked us to judge Academies on their results, we are being expressly prevented from doing so. Because the full data is not being released. The study criticized the number of schools choosing to withhold their results.

 Only 43 per cent of head teachers were willing to publish details. One head teacher told the think-tank that Academies should be able to keep test scores secret because publication would “identify the subjects that the academy has chosen not to prioritize” such as separate sciences and geography. The study added the “high performance of vocational entries was very noticeable” for those schools supplying exam information. Without vocational subjects, the headline performance at GCSE of a number of academies is considerably lower than it is when they are included,” the study concluded. The justifications for concealing important data from public scrutiny on Academies do not stand up to scrutiny.

It is odd that a Government so keen on championing evidence based policy and which, to its credit, has established a data rich environment in respect of schools should allow this to happen.

 Nobody pretends that Academies have anything but big challenges on their hands. They often have above average numbers of pupils on free school meals, with special education needs and with English as their second language. These can present huge challenges to which many, probably most, Academies have risen. But they should have the same information requirements as other state school and information should be available so that their performance and any improvements they make can be rated and authenticated. If they abide by different rules of disclosure it will only raise people’s suspicions that they have something to hide and fuel concerns over their accountability and indeed effectiveness. It also plays into the hands of critics who claim there is a two tiered system developing. Given that their exemption from FOA requirements is under review it seems possible that this exemption will be removed shortly. The study seems to suggest that most Academy heads would not mind too much if this happened.

I personally don’t think Academies have much to hide but if they do lets get it out in the open.

 Other state schools, after all, know how to play the league table game and some Academies may simply be learning the tricks of the trade from their less autonomous peers. And who can blame them?


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