Unions fail to provide evidence in support of their claims against Academies


As a public-private initiative, the academies programme is expected to drive up educational standards, particularly through the innovative nature of the academy culture and the expertise and experience that a (mainly) private sector sponsor is presumed to bring to a school.

It is argued that this will facilitate better management and governance, which in turn will lead to improvements in educational attainment. Professor Allan Smithers, among others, has highlighted international evidence  that suggests that autonomous schools, in other words those that are self-governing and not subject to interference either from central or local government,  perform better than state managed or municipal schools.

One key argument used by unions against Academies and against the expansion of the Academies scheme, is that there is no evidence that Academies are improving standards.

Certainly, it is true that evidence is mixed.

Some Academies deliver well above average results while a small minority are failing.  But it is arguable, based on the balance of evidence ,that the performance  trend from 2003- 2009  can be shown to be  positive. It is also true that they have proved popular with parents, with most massively oversubscribed and that they provide more choice for parents.

An National Audit Office report in 2007 found that, while conceding it was relatively early days for the initiative to show clear results, the Academies GCSE performance was  improving faster in Academies than in other types of school, including those in similar circumstances, and the gap between the best and worst performance of individual Academies had narrowed. And taking account of both pupils personal circumstances and prior attainment, Academies GCSE performance was   “substantially better, on average, than other schools”. In addition, an independent report in 2008, from  PWC, on the progress of Academies concluded  “the picture that emerges is one of positive overall progress in securing improvements in performance”, adding that “many Academies performed better than the national average for progress from Key Stage 2 to GCSE”.

This report also found that in 2007 GCSE results showed an average Academy improvement rate of four times the national average – 8 percentage points (ppts) compared to 2 ppts. Even when English and Maths is included, the average Academy improvement rate (5 ppts)

But there is also evidence that presents a different picture. A London School of Economics  report, in 2007 ,again with a caveat attached,    that it was really  too early to deliver definitive results,  found that  Academies in its  study  did improve their performance after changing status, with their improvement in GCSE performance rising between 9.6 percentage points (Academies opening in 2005/06) and 14.1 percentage points (Academies opening in 2003/04).

However this study also noted, crucially, that “These improvements look less impressive when benchmarked against other poorly performing matched state schools that did not become academies but were also prone to mean reversion. This is because standards rose for the matched schools as well” ,  by a  fairly similar amount as it happens.

There are also allegations that Academies may be giving an inflated view of how successful they are in improving performance. The centre Right think tank Civitas published a  report on Academies last year  which claimed that some Academy schools are boosting their exam results by concentrating on “soft” vocational courses at the expense of more challenging academic subjects. Because Academy schools haven’t, to date, been subject to the Freedom of Information Act, this trend can relatively easily be concealed, as they are not obliged to declare in full what  exams their pupils are sitting . There is no good reason  of course  why Academies should not be fully transparent nor indeed the quango that supports them, the SSAT. They  should both be subject to the Freedom of Information Act.

Some academies have done astonishingly well of course. Nearly half of Mossbourne Academies’  pupils are on free school meals and 30 per cent have special needs, but 84 per cent of 2009’s cohort gained five A*-C grades in their GCSEs, including English and maths. It also topped the league tables in value added—the measure of improvement since pupils started at the school. (Although Value added measurements are contentious). Mossbournes  Head attributes his schools success to its relative autonomy and he  has long been an advocate of Local management of schools

It is also true that significant improvements delivered by Academies with the most deprived intakes, who start  from a very low base, are not  deemed newsworthy and fall below the medias radar  .These Academies are making very significant but unheralded  improvements   year on year.

But there are also some other academies that  are failing or underperforming

The United Learning Trust (ULT), an Anglican charity, runs 17 academies and is the country’s largest sponsor. Last summer, three of its London academies were at the bottom of their local tables in GCSE results. In Sheffield, Ofsted recommended special measures for one of its academies and told another that “teaching and learning are inadequate.” In November 2009, ULT in a significant blow to its reputation was told by the government that it couldn’t expand further until its existing schools improved.

ULT is probably the victim of its rapid schools expansion against the backdrop of   a shifting political landscape. When ULT first committed to the Academies scheme the policy environment was very different.  Now it is arguable that Academies, following changes to the scheme  under Gordon Browns administration,  had some of the levers that might  have helped  secure  improvement removed . There is little doubt that the freedoms for Academies to mange themselves, free from local and or national interference,  were curtailed by Ed Balls who was keen to ensure Academies developed partnership arrangements with Local Authorities, an altogether different vision  from that outlined by Lord Adonis when he launched the scheme.

In addition ULT has so many schools ,with 17 different heads and governing bodies, it could be argued that it was  bound to have one or two schools not quite up to scratch. Others will have learnt from their experience of expanding so rapidly, at the possible expense of quality assurance   If you have a successful model, it does not necessarily follow that if you upscale and replicate  it that everything will fall seamlessly  into place. It is worth remembering in this respect what philosophers call the fallacy of composition-believing that, because something is true of one unit, it is true of all such units taken together.  It requires a very high quality management to make it work well across the board.

However unions arguments about Academies performance are logically challenged. On the one hand they claim   that Academies “do not deliver better educational outcomes” (ie, don’t teach better) On the other hand they assert that Academies   “create widespread inequality and social segregation”.  Academies  cant be guilty on both charges.

At their heart, union objections are about fear. Fear  that that they will have less influence over what happens in   schools and  of a  declining  influence within local authorities as power and funding  shifts from local officials to school  governors, Heads and ,yes, parents.

However the reality is new schools will offer teachers more freedoms to exercise their professional judgement, will give them a professional voice again, will relieve them of much bureaucracy , freeing up teaching time and  introduce new forms of governance that could allow them a greater say and inputs into what happens in their schools, in how they teach  and in  their working practices. But with too many union leaders when reforms are mooted  the glass is always half empty. Reforms are seen  as a threat  to be resisted, rather than an opportunity to be exploited. This is not progressive, this is reactionary.

Unions are about protecting producer interests. But consumers in the form of parents rather like Academies, just as parents, particularly in disadvantaged areas in the States like Charter schools and   parents in Sweden – free schools.

Those who oppose Academies have no answer for why  they are increasingly  popular with parents , if what they  claim  about them  is correct.


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