Government stung by Observers allegation that Academies are underperforming compared with other state schools


Last weekend’s Observer made a number of claims about Academy performance. Academies, it said, are under-performing compared with other state schools, raising doubts over the reform programme being pursued by the education secretary. It alleged that figures show that, while 60% of pupils in non-academy schools attained five A* to C grade GCSEs last year, only 47% did so in the 249 sponsored academies. The progress that pupils achieve over time is also lower in academies than in non-academy schools, with 65% of those in academies making expected progress in English in the year leading to the 2011 GCSE examinations, compared with 74% in the community, foundation and voluntary-aided schools that make up the rest of the state sector.

Ministers were sufficiently irritated by the Observer piece that they instructed the DfE to formulate a detailed reply (or rebuttal). The essence of the reply was that the Observer was not comparing like with like. In fact all the Observer had succeeded in doing was to provide what DFE termed  ‘a very poor snapshot analysis’. The DfE said ‘it’s ridiculous to lump in the lowest performing schools which may have only become Academies five months ago, with ones which have been established for years. Much of their analysis was based on a simplistic comparison between all schools and Academies – nearly all of which were previously failing local authority maintained schools. As Academies are having to recover from such a low base such a comparison is nonsensical.’  The Observer claim that; Academies with poor results in 2008 have improved no faster than maintained schools with poor results over the same period is based on an analysis  that excludes the most successful academies that opened between 2001-2007 and which had already seen huge improvements. Research by the LSE found results were strongest for schools that have been academies for longer.’  The DFE adds that the analysis of progress measures is limited because the league tables consider progress of pupils over the full five years in secondary school. All pupils in Academies will have spent the majority of their time in the underperforming predecessor school not the Academy.  Nor, added the DFE, did the Observer ‘take into account spill-over effects – e.g. local authority schools improving because an Academy has opened nearby (as the London School of Economics has suggested is happening). They have used a narrow way of comparing schools, looking purely at the Free School Meal intake. The Government and the NAO actually use a wider range of data to create comparator statistics. We look at FSM rates, previous results and prior attainment levels of pupils. This means we are genuinely comparing like for like.’

Here is the government’s official position on Academy success:

‘This year, yet again, Academies’ GCSE results improved by nearly twice the level seen across all maintained schools

Attendance figures at academies are rising faster than in other schools, and the number of NEETS are falling faster in academies than other schools. (NAO report)

The London Schools of Economics found that Academies improve faster than comparator schools even when controlling for pupil intake and the use of GCSE “equivalent” qualifications. They also found that Academies effect helped raise standards in other local schools

The attainment rate for FSM pupils in Academies improved by 8.0 percentage points between 2009 and 2010. This more than double the improvement rate recorded in comparable schools (3.1 percentage points) and also much higher than the national improvement rate for FSM pupils (4.3 percentage points).  Results in sponsored academies are generally higher for those that have been open the longest.  In 2011, the proportion of pupils achieving 5+A*-C including English and maths was 42.7% in sponsored academies open for one year and 52.0% in those open for five or more years. (DfE research)’


Nobody doubts how popular with parents many, indeed most, Academies are.

There are eight applicants for every place at Mossbourne Academy, which eight years ago was described as the “worst school in Britain” when it was still Hackney Downs. A total of 1,587 children have applied for 200 places.

Ark academy schools have seen a rise in applications, with six children per place at Ark Academy in Wembley, a rise of 12 per cent, and four per place at Burlington Danes in Hammersmith, an increase of nine per cent.

The Bolingbroke Academy in Battersea, which opens in September, has five pupils chasing every place.

West London Free School in Hammersmith, which opened in September, has seen nine children applying for each place.




  1. The DfE rebuttal was subject to a detailed response by myself on the Local Schools Network: In fact the LSN analysis compared both long established academies, and academies with similar previously under-performing schools. In both cases non-academies did as well as academies.

    The DfE has not responded to this refutation of their rebuttal and has refused the requests from journalists on two national newspapers to host a debate on the data, between themselves and LSN.

    There is no doubt of the success of Mossbourne Academy. However it cannot be the case that Hackney Downs was described in 2004 (8 years ago) as ‘the worst school in Britain’ as Hackney Downs closed in 1995. The government likes to portray Mossbourne as taking over a failing school but this is not the case. There was a 9 year gap between Hackney Downs closing and Mossbourne opening and they have very different intakes (Mossbourne has 40% of students on free school meals, Hackney Downs had over 70%.)

    On the LSE report it should be noted that the authors do not draw the same conclusion as the government about the impact of their academies programme: “Under the coalition government, the academies programme is now likely to reinforce advantage and exacerbate existing inequalities in schooling. At a time of budget restraint, it seems natural to question whether the large expenditure involved in converting these advantaged schools to academies is justified.” (Stephen Machin & James Vernoit,

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