Why Academies don't raise standards

Roger Titcombe's picture

Local Schools Network has recently featured a number of articles by Henry Stewart that cast serious doubts on Department for Education claims that Academies perform better than Local Authority maintained schools. His articles here, here, here and here are his latest. The DfE have failed to refute the evidence or conclusions demonstrated by Henry's data and are increasingly reduced to crude, evidence-free attacks. Are there credible educational explanations for the relatively poor performance of Academies? I have just finished reading, 'The Truth about our Schools: Exposing the Myths, Exploring the Evidence' by Melissa Benn and Janet Downs. This is a brilliant, must read, expose of the fallacies encouraged and peddled by the DfE and uncritically reproduced by the mainstream media. Myth No 5 is, 'Academies Raise Standards'. The evidence has been clear that they don't, even before Henry's latest revelations that post-date the publication of the book. Other chapters point to explanations rooted in mainstream educational research. Myth No 6 is, 'Teachers don't need qualifications' In the English education system teacher training and education is increasingly being taken away from universities in favour of 'theory-light' school-based on-the-job training. In the rest of the world, and especially in countries with the highest performing education systems, the trend is in the opposite direction - for teacher education to be university-based, longer, more rigorous, more academic and more theoretical, while maintaining the obviously necessary supervised classroom-based training that has always existed. It is Academies that are leading the opposite process in England. It is still worse because not only are Academy teachers less likely to be effectively educated, trained and qualified, Academies and Free Schools in England are allowed to employ as teachers, people with no teacher training at all - not even the theory-light versions backed and encouraged by the DfE. It is actually worse still, because Academies are more likely than LA schools to be controlled by 'Executives' with various fancy titles and correspondingly sky high salaries and bonuses, who do no teaching themselves and are increasingly unlikely to possess any academic qualifications in the theory of education. It is like putting the design teams of shipyards under the control of people that do not understand the Principle of Archimedes. Myth No 8 is, 'Progressive Education lowers standards' Melissa and Janet root out the ideological origins of this myth and evaluate the evidence. Amongst much else they point to the work of the Sutton Trust and the Education Endowment Foundation who have evaluated 30 different types of school intervention and quantitatively rated the effectiveness of each in terms of learning outcomes. You can find their conclusions here. Many of the most effective often attract the label 'progressive' and these are less likely to be found in Academies. They are explained and discussed in detail in Part 5 of my book, 'Learning Matters' and include the following: Feedback and meta-cognition strategies Peer tutoring Collaborative Learning See here and here. The following have been shown to have no effect at all, or to actually inhibit effective learning. They are rare in the world's most effective systems but are all commonly adopted in Academies. Strict school uniforms Performance Related Pay for teachers Strict Setting and Streaming See here and here. So there we have it. Henry's research reveals Academy under-performance. Melissa Benn, Janet Downs and I provide in our books some educational mechanisms that explain it.

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Barry Wise's picture
Sat, 02/01/2016 - 12:03


I think you need to be a bit more precise and more careful to avoid unwarranted generalization.

Henry's research has (so far) been limited the 1400 or so sponsored academies. None of his strictures (which are anyway contestable - see other thread) apply to the overwhelming majority of academies, which are converters. There are > 3,500 of these and they account for many of the best performing schools across the country.

Most secondary schools performing above the national average are academies.

Where is the evidence that feedback, meta-cognition strategies, peer tutoring, and collaborative learning are less likely to be found in academies?

The best-performing comprehensive school is a sponsored academy - ARK King Solomon's Academy, which I think I'm right in saying doesn't do strict streaming and setting.


Roger Titcombe's picture
Sat, 02/01/2016 - 12:52

Barry - Part 4 of 'Learning Matters' is entitled, Case Study of the role of admissions systems in successful schools. The Case Study in question is of Mossbourne Academy. I conclude that although Mossbourne is a good fully comprehensive school its success is founded on the only significant academy freedom not available to LA maintained schools - control over the admissions policy. I argue how it would have been impossible for Hackney Downs school to succeed in the post 1988 Education Act league table era however effective its teaching and learning strategies could have been.

The same arguments apply to large numbers of 'failed schools' written off as 'basket cases', which were condemned by the combination of lack of power to overcome admissions policies to escape sink school intakes, league tables and floor targets that are unrelated to CATs scores (usually because CATs scores are not available).

The evidence you ask for is impossible to provide because there is no existing database that on a national level can evaluate school performance taking full account of the differences in the mean cognitive ability of admissions cohorts. I write at length about this in my book and in my posts on this site.

Here is Section 2.3 in my book written by Janet Downs. She is not talking just about Academy Schools, but what she describes could not take place in LA schools if the LA was exercising the powers it does not have over Academies.

"The Children’s Commissioner describes the ways schools can deter pupils they don’t want. “It might be best if you looked elsewhere”. That’s what one school told a parent of a child with special needs (SEN), said the Children’s Commissioner. The Children’s Commissioner heard evidence of how schools deter SEN children and said parents of SEN pupils had been put off from applying for a school place because of “negative messages”.

It wasn’t just parents of SEN children who could be discouraged but less affluent parents too, the Children’s Commissioner found. Many schools required expensive uniform from an exclusive source despite clear guidance from the Department for Education (DfE) to keep uniform costs to a minimum. The Commissioner discovered schools serving the same neighbourhood could nevertheless have very different intakes.

This raised the question whether the admission system was contributing to inequality whereby one school had a disproportionate number of previously high-attaining pupils while another had an intake skewed to the bottom of the ability range.

Schools had duties under the Equality Act 2010 to ensure they did not discriminate against any child because of background, ethnicity, disability or needs. Admission authorities should regularly assess their admission criteria to ensure they meet their legal obligations, the Commissioner recommended. The law surrounding admissions was ambiguous, the Commissioner said, despite the Schools Admission Code which came into force in 2012.

The DfE needed to give clear guidance about what is lawful and unlawful. If it’s suspected a school’s admission criteria are unlawful, the Office of the Schools Adjudicator (OSA) can only act if it receives a formal complaint. Anyone can complain but it depends on knowing exactly which paragraphs of the Schools Admission Code have been violated."

So the nearest I can get to answering your point is to listen to the most vocal of the Academy advocates in the government, the media and the most well-known and well-connected of the leaders of such schools. There is an overwhelming emphasis on strict uniforms, setting and streaming, knowledge based approaches to teaching, punishments and performance related pay.

The following is Section C2.6 in my book.

"According to an article in the Guardian of 19 November 2013,

“It’s around noon at a popular and successful Academy School. Through the glass walls of the classrooms children can be seen with their heads down over their work. Open a door and they will all jump to attention and stand silently, shirts buttoned to the top, ties neatly pulled up under pinstripe blazers. Tight discipline is something of a feature in many of the sponsored academies of north London.

Strict dress codes, daily uniform checks and long lists of rules about the different types of detention have won praise from some parents, but others believe it has gone too far.

At another nearby academy the behaviour policy says students are not allowed to go to the toilet between lessons or visit a local shop on the way home.

In another London Academy there is a five-stage ‘behaviour improvement path’ that begins with 20-minute detentions for minor matters such as not filling in a year planner properly, or bringing the wrong equipment, and escalates to exclusion for persistent rule-breaking or more serious offences.”

A parent is quoted, “They are all Academies around here or are run on similar lines. There’s only one school that isn’t, and it’s hugely oversubscribed. We’re being given no choice about how our children are educated. Why is it only in poor areas that children are being made to do this?”

The point about the positive strategies to which you and I refer is that they require a particular quality of relationships, teacher/student and student/student, that is is not compatible with much of the practice trumpeted by the Academy promotion organs.

Of course I am not saying that there are no Academies that practise interventions that the EEF find to be positive. But this is not the predominant 'noise' that emerges from the DfE sponsored Academy and Free School promotion industry.

Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 03/01/2016 - 09:17

Barry - now, there's a surprise. Converter academies were mainly those which were already Good or Outstanding. They include a large number of grammars. It's hardly surprising then that many are among the best performing in the country.

However, it's these converters are predominately in the secondary sector and it's in the secondary sector where improvement in Ofsted judgements has stalled. Correlation isn't causation, of course, but the Government, remember, promotes academization as a magic pill.

In June 2012, Michael Gove said converter academies were helping to push up standards. The DfE could provide no evidence that supported this statement (see here).

Since then, the Academies Commission 2013 found non-academies could do most things academies can do and the Education Select Committee has told the Government to stop exaggerating academy success.

Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 03/01/2016 - 10:06

Barry - and most primary schools performing above the national average are non-academies. That's not surprising since the majority of primary schools are non-academies.

Barry Wise's picture
Sat, 02/01/2016 - 16:07

Actually Roger, the EEF is absolutely the sort of thing what you call the "DfE sponsored Academy and Free School promotion industry" are into.

The Education Endowment Foundation was kick-started with £125m from Michael Gove, who appointed the Sutton Trust and a private equity firm called Impetus to run it.
The EEF's advisory board includes Lucy Heller (Chief Executive of ARK), Andrew Adonis (wearing his Independent Academies Association hat) and Brett Wigdortz of Teach First. Frankly, I'm astonished you haven't already branded it 'neoliberal' or accused it of conspiring to hand our schools over to Rupert Murdoch.

I'm puzzled about how you can attribute all Mossbourne's success to intake. I thought they aligned CATS scores and bands to give them an intake with a cognitive ability profile that reflected the national profile. That might give them an advantage locally but shouldn't guarantee anything better than performance in line with the national average. But they get better results than that.

Besides, if MOST secondary schools are now academies and in some LAs all or nearly all are, then they can't all be skewing their intakes in a favourable way.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Sun, 03/01/2016 - 10:14

Barry - I know it's hard, but I try to judge research and comment on the basis of process, content, logic, internal consistency etc rather than the name of the author. In my book, Learning Matters, you will find references to 'The Bell Curve' by Herrnstein & Murray and the work of Peter Saunders on meritocracy & social mobility, published by Civitas (hiss, boo from the reflex reaction left). I deplore book burning, fatwas, demolition of statues of historical figures and 'denial of platform' campaigns by religious groups against secularists etc.

So your 'astonishment' is ill-founded as well as ungenerous.

Like all research, that produced by EEF needs to be exposed to critical analysis and peer review. For example, I am uncomfortable with the method of ranking interventions on the basis of gains expressed in months. The point however is that the EEF findings are contrary to the 'noise' emerging from the pro-academy lobby.

I do not attribute all the success of Mossbourne to its intake. I stated that the success 'was founded' on its admissions policy. In Section 4.9 of 'Learning Matters' I state the following.

" This should not be taken to diminish the achievement of Mossbourne as a comprehensive school. Having selected a disproportionate number of bright children from its deprived neighbourhood community it is still necessary to provide the support, ethos and culture needed for these pupils to succeed. Mossbourne appears to be meeting this challenge."

It is true that the Mossbourne banded admissions policy was designed to produce an intake that matches the national cognitive ability profile. However the current version of the policy (revised from 2013) produced changes that appear likely to further improve the ability profile of the school. This is discussed in Section 4.4 of 'Learning Matters'.

When Academies introduce CATs based banded admissions policies this damages any neighbouring schools that do not or cannot follow suit. This is why when I advocate such banding in urban areas I make clear that this has to be an LA wide system, as it is in Hackney.

This issue too is fully discussed in 'Learning Matters'.

I really think you need to read my book. I have just checked and found that Amazon have only one copy left in stock. I suggest you purchase it immediately.


Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 03/01/2016 - 09:03

Barry, the £135 million (initally £125 million + £10m top-up) grant to EEF by the Government was 'arms length'. This implied independence from DfE influence. The EEF has demonstrated this independence by producing reports which contradict many DfE assertions as I wrote here.

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