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FactCheck: are academies better?

By Channel 4 News

Updated on 07 September 2009

Are exam results in the government's flagship schools really improving faster than the national average?


The claim

"The academy programme is going from strength to strength...GCSE results are rising faster than the national average giving outstanding opportunities for areas let down educationally for generations."
Ed Balls, Schools Secretary, 7 September 2009

The background

Schools Secretary Ed Balls launched the 200th academy school, along with prime minister, today. The government aims to get a total of 400 of the publicly funded, independent schools up and running; it's one of New Labour's flagship education reforms.

Academies work with a private sponsor, such as a business or a faith group, who originally had to stump up £2m to get the school off the ground. Balls announced today that the cash requirement was being scrapped as part of a plan to reel in the widest range of sponsors possible.

Academies play a crucial part in the government's quest to drive up standards, and Balls was quoted today as proudly pointing out that GCSE results in academies are "rising faster than the national average".

But although there are now 200 academies and counting, the schools haven't really been around that long. The first three opened in 2002; 67 of them are new this term. So can we confidently say that being an academy necessarily equals better exam results, or could there be other factors at play?

The analysis

The government noted that, of 63 academies open long enough to have at least two years of GCSE results, the increase in the proportion of pupils getting the target five or more A*-C grades including English and maths this year is expected to be 5.1 percentage points (full verified results aren't yet published).

In 2008, the increase was 4.3 percentage points, compared to a national average of a 2.5 percentage point improvement.

Which sounds good - although 63 schools isn't huge sample, and this doesn't consider other factors, such as type of pupils now queuing up to get into these new and innovative schools.

Researchers at the LSE analysed the performance of a sample of 27 academies which had opened over four years, from 2002 to 2005. They matched each academy with the nearest performing school which did not become an academy, based on exam results going back to 1996. They also compared the academy to all the other secondary schools in the academy's local authority area.

They found schools in each of the four cohorts had improved their GCSE performance, from between 9.6 percentage points (those which opened in 2005) and 14.1 percentage points (schools which opened in 2003).

Sounds good, but what about when it's compared to the matched schools which weren't glossed by the academy brush? Here, the researchers also found standards rose - by between six percentage points (for those compared with academies that opened in 2004) and 14.5 points (those compared with the first set of academies, which opened in 2002).

So when academies' GCSE results were looked at in comparison to the performance of the matched non-academy schools, the changes were, the researchers reckoned, "statistically indistinguishable from one another". The pattern was the same when the academies were compared to all state schools in the local area.

Damning? The research certainly suggests that becoming an academy doesn't have an effect on GCSE performance, not when compared to similar non-academy schools, anyway.

But the researchers point out that their evidence is based on only a small fraction of the number of academies set to open, and that with the scheme still in its infancy, it's still too early to draw a full conclusion.

It's also worth noting - as researchers at the University of London's Institute of Education, and the government's own independent evaluation by PricewaterhouseCoopers - have done, that all academies are not equal. Even based on a fairly small sample, average performances conceal some diverse results.

Some academies have had well-publicised problems - the Unity Academy in Middlesbrough was put into special measures in 2005 (recent inspection reports have said it's improving); more recently, the Richard Rose Central Academy in Carlisle went into special measures in January 2009, just five months after it opened, after parents complained to school inspectors.

And there have been notable successes - the Mossbourne Community Academy in Hackney saw 85 per cent of its first GCSE intake get the benchmark 5 A*-C GCSEs (including English and maths), compared to a national average of 47.6 per cent.

The verdict

Despite differences between individual schools, GCSE results in academies overall do seem to be improving faster than the national average (though they came from a lower start point, and still tend to lag behind).

But one analysis found this statistical improvement disappears when academies are compared to a similar school, that didn't become an academy. Admittedly, this research is based on a small sample of the expanding academies scheme; time may tell a different picture.

FactCheck rating: 2.5

How ratings work

Every time a FactCheck article is published we'll give it a rating from zero to five.

The lower end of the scale indicates that the claim in question largerly checks out, while the upper end of the scale suggests misrepresentation, exaggeration, a massaging of statistics and/or language.

In the unlikely event that we award a 5 out of 5, our factcheckers have concluded that the claim under examination has absolutely no basis in fact.

The sources

DCSF: revised GCSE results 2007-8
Academy schools and pupil performance
The Academies programme: Progress, problems and possibilities
Academies Evaluation: Fifth Annual Report

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