The claim

“Evidence shows that the academy programme has had a good effect on school standards.”
Michael Gove,  16 June 2011

The background

The academy revolution in British education is speeding up, with hundreds more schools opting to free themselves from local authority control and go it alone.

Academies were a Labour idea, launched in 2002 with the aim of turning round underperforming secondary schools in the most impoverished areas of the country.

They would get money directly from the Government and have more control over their affairs, although they would remain non-selective state schools.

The Conservative-led Coalition has taken to the scheme with gusto, and now Mr Gove has announced that, for the first time, failing primary schools are to be turned into academies as well in an attempt to improve standards.

These are 200 schools where, for five years or more, fewer than 60 per cent of pupils have achieved Level 4 in English and Maths at Key Stage 2 or made an average level of progress. They will be now be relaunched with new academy sponsors in charge.

For opponents of the academy model, that’s an unwelcome new enroachment into a whole new area of education. Even supporters of the scheme say it’s a brave move to extend the academy system to primaries.

Mr Gove’s justification, as he told the BBC, is that: “Evidence shows that the academy programme has had a good effect on school standards.”

FactCheck decided to take a closer look at that evidence.

The analysis

In his speech today, Mr Gove cited a study by researchers at the London School of Economics, which he said “showed not only that they have improved significantly faster than other schools, but also that other schools in their locality have seen results improve”.

The study does indeed conclude that the original academy scheme as created by Labour had positive effects – though there were important caveats.

The authors – Stephen Machin and James Machin – tried to get around the difficulty of comparing like with like by looking at schools that had become academies alongside those which were similarly deprived and were planning to change status in the future.

They found that there was a significant improvement in the percentage of pupils who achieved the equivalent of five or more GCSEs at grades A* to C.

They also found that, as time went on, the academies started to attract better-performing children from local primaries, suggesting that the elevated reputation of the rebranded schools were attracting a different profile of pupil.

Interestingly, as Mr Gove points out, they also found that there were “small significant improvements” in the performance of local schools, even those that had seen the “quality” of the pupils they attracted go down.

But the broader point was clear, as the National Audit Office (NAO) picked up on in its 2010 report on academies.

The NAO found that pupil demographics in the academies were changing fast. The proportion of pupils eligible for free school meals – a key measure of deprivation – fell from 45.3 to 27.8 per cent between 2002 and 2010.

The researchers concluded that the academies may have been failing in their initial aim of helping the most disadvantaged, saying: “The gap in attainment between more disadvantaged pupils and others has grown wider in academies than in comparable maintained schools.”

There was another important qualification in the LSE study. All the results were strongest for the schools that had been academies for longer.

It took several years for the “academy effect” to become apparent, and because the first academies were launched in 2002, nobody knows if the trend of improvement increases, flattens out or reverses itself over a longer timescale.

A major study that looked at US charter schools – one of the closest international equivalents to British academies – since they were launched in 1991 found only 17 per cent “provide superior education opportunities for their students”.

Nearly half had results that were no different from the local state schools and 37 per cent “deliver learning results that are significantly worse than their student would have realized had they remained in traditional public schools”, the researchers from Stanford University concluded.

At least for now, the LSE report shows evidence of significant improvement in British academies, and the Department for Education said their own figures suggest they are pulling away from other schools at an impressive rate.

A DfE spokesman said the yearly increase in the percentage of pupils across all schools who got at least five GCSEs at grades A* to C including English and maths over the last ten years varies from around 1.5 to 2.5 percentage points and “the most recent increase for academies (from 2009) was 7.8 percentage points, so around three times as much at least”.

But there’s a major problem in the way GCSE results are compared, as first pointed out by the Civitas think-tank.

Their researchers surveyed academies and found that some were ditching traditional academic subjects like geography and history in favour of vocational qualifications.

Considered the equivalent of GCSEs for the purposes of the league tables, vocational subjects like computing took up less teaching time and were branded “less demanding” and “of doubtful value” by Ofsted.

The implication was that some academies were dumbing down the curriculum to achieve a boost in their GCSE results. They might have to include English and Maths in the figures, but what other three subjects were the most popular in academies?

The extent of the problem was impossible to gauge, Civitas found, because neither the schools nor the Department for Education were able to break down the GCSEs by subject area and academies were not obliged to answer Freedom of Information requests.

In light of the shortcomings in the available evidence, the think-tank went so far as to call for a halt to the programme until the then-Labour Government really knew what was going on with GCSE results.

But, far from heeding that call, the Coalition has pressed on with expanding the academies programme without addressing the gap in our knowledge.

The verdict

There are lots of different ways of judging how schools perform, and none of them suggest that becoming an academy is a magic solution for a failing secondary.

Typically, an Ofsted report last year produced a mixed bag of results. Academies were more likely to be rated outstanding than other state schools – but more than half were rated no better than satisfactory, compared with just 35 per cent of other state schools.

Predictably, Mr Gove has chosen not to focus on Ofsted reports or other indicators but has instead homed in on one very narrow measure – the rate at which GCSE results are improving.

An overview of the academic literature on that subject is far from definitive. Most of the most recent studies find that academic performance, as measured by GCSEs, is indeed getting better at academies than at other schools.

But it’s far from clear whether it’s the academy model of governance, rather than the other benefits that go with it (new buildings, new teachers, rebranding) that’s driving the change.

PricewaterhouseCoopers’ fifth annual report on academies in 2008 said many of the schools were performing well but concluded that “there is insufficient evidence to make a definitive judgment about academies as a model of school improvement”.

Factors like improvements to school buildings and flexibility over staffing and pay – things that are by no means exclusive to academies – could be contributing to their success, the auditors said.

There’s strong evidence from the National Audit Office that the programme is drifting away from its original aims of helping the poorest pupils.

And the broadside that Civitas fired at Labour over the gaping hole in the GCSE statistics has still not been answered by the Coalition.

Civitas is poised to publish a major new piece of research on academies next month, which may add something to the debate.

Until then, Mr Gove’s decision to extend the academy system to cover primary schools looks increasingly like a gamble rather than a piece of evidence-based policy.

We’re not going to dismiss his claim as fiction because it’s based on a solid piece of research from the LSE. But until we see hard evidence that they are not dumbing down the curriculum to boost their exam results, the jury’s still out on academies.

By Patrick Worrall