Labour's sponsored academies programme led to "significant improvements" in attainment, increasing pupils' chances of securing five good grades at GCSE, according to a new study.
London School of Economics (LSE) researchers have found that students attending some of the country's worst-performing state secondaries gained better grades after their school converted than peers at schools with a similar intake.
The research (bit.lyAcademy Study) comes at a time when the merits of conversion are under increasing scrutiny, amid government plans to force at least 1,000 schools deemed to be "failing" or "coasting" to become academies, vastly increasing the number of state-funded independent schools.
Academics compared the GCSE outcomes of pupils who had spent four years at a school that had become a sponsored academy between 2003 and 2009 with those from similar state-run schools that converted later. The study looked at 106 schools, the vast majority of which were performing "well below the national average". At academies that had converted from community schools, the increase was the equivalent of a student's best eight grades rising from eight Cs to seven Bs and one C. The improvement translates to "a 16 percentage-point increase in the probability" of a student achieving five A* to C grades.
Professor Stephen Machin (pictured, below), research director of the Centre for Economic Performance at LSE and co-author of the study, said the findings suggested the schools had benefited from an increased focus after conversion.
"These schools needed a lot of attention and were probably not getting it under the local authority. The conversion enabled them to get the more unequal treatment that was needed and put right what was going wrong," he told TES.
Many of the schools changed headteachers upon conversion and the report states that this was often accompanied by a "more modest turnaround of rank and file teaching staff".
Converted schools immediately attracted students who had better results at the end of key stage 2, the study finds; this was marked by a "jump" in test scores among new Year 7 pupils.
But the researchers were at pains to point out that comparisons could not be made with many of the academies created after the 2010 general election. Under the coalition, thousands of schools rated "good" and "outstanding" by Ofsted were given the opportunity to convert to academy status, shifting the programme from a focus on the worst-performing schools in the country to some of the best.
The NUT teaching union countered the report's claims, pointing to a recent study by the Local Schools Network that showed schools in "poor" Ofsted categories were more likely to remain there if they became sponsored academies. Kevin Courtney (pictured, right), deputy general secretary of the NUT, said: "It's important to note that Labour's programme was accompanied by significant new funding - often brand-new buildings - and that these are not the conditions facing schools becoming academies now."