They were set up under the Blair government to improve underperforming schools. Now, more than a decade later, academy schools could fuel rather than improve social segregation, a new report warns.
The study, by the Academies Commission, suggests that some academies are deploying “covert selection” to cherry pick students from the most privileged backgrounds. Methods include hosting “social” events for prospective parents in order to bypass a ban on direct interviews; and seeking further information “not permitted by the code” to select pupils from more privileged backgrounds.
“Such practices can enable schools to select pupils from more privileged families where parents have the requisite cultural capital to complete [forms] in ways that will increase their child’s chances,” the report says.
It is part of a package of concerns that have “attracted controversy and fuelled concerns that the growth of academies may entrench rather than mitigate social inequalities”.
The report, led by Ofsted’s former chief inspector Christine Gilbert, says that the dramatic rise in the number of academies – from 203 to 2,456 since the Coalition Government came to power – does not necessarily represent a “panacea for school improvement”.
It also says evidence “suggests that many previously poorly performing schools in disadvantaged areas (that stayed with their local authorities) have done just as well as those which embarked on the academy route”.
While the academies programme began under Labour, it accelerated sharply when Michael Gove took over at the Department for Education. More than half of secondary schools and many primaries across the countries have become academies or plan to convert.
But the report warns that as more schools make that transition, “there is a risk that admissions ‘game playing’ may be extended further”.
“The growth of academies may entrench rather than mitigate social inequalities” – Academies Commission
Stephen Twigg, the shadow education secretary, said: “This report highlights serious problems with Michael Gove’s management of one of Labour’s key school improvement programmes.
“Academies under Labour were about raising standards and this government is putting that legacy at risk.
“The report issues a clear warning on the implementation of the academies policy, echoing Labour’s concerns that under this government the schools system is becoming chaotic, impacting on standards and fairness.”
A spokesman for the Department for Education said: “All admissions authorities – be they local councils or self-governing schools including academies – must comply with our new fair Admissions Code.”