There is no evidence that academies and free schools, two central pillars of the coalition's school reforms, have had any effect on raising standards across the system, according to a cross-party panel of MPs.
A report, published today by the Commons Education Select Committee, says it is too early to know whether academies and free schools will be a “positive force for change”.
The report will be a concern for both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats, coming just months ahead of the general election, although the MPs did say the overall standard of schools has improved during the process of converting schools into academies.
Since coming to power, the coalition has overseen the creation of 4,200 academies, and has often used changing a school’s structure as a means of turning around an underperforming school.
However, the committee’s report states: “Academisation is not always successful, nor is it the only proven alternative for a struggling school. Both academies and state maintained schools have a role to play in system-wide improvement by looking outwards and accepting challenge in order to ensure high-quality education for all children.”
MPs said they still had concerns about the general oversight of both academy sponsors and chains, and warned that the success of sponsored academies created under Labour did not necessarily translate to schools that have converted since 2010.
“Some chains, such as Harris, have proved very effective at raising attainment, while others achieve worse outcomes than comparable mainstream schools,” the report states. “What is clear is that the picture is highly variable across the country and, in the case of sponsored academies, across chains.”
About 60 per cent of secondary schools are now academies, but just 13 per cent of primaries have converted.
The committee goes on to warn: "There is at present no convincing evidence of the impact of academy status on attainment in primary schools. The Department for Education should commission such research as a matter of urgency."
Committee chair and Conservative MP Graham Stuart said the Department for Education needed to be “less defensive” and “more open” about how it has implemented the academies programme.
“Current evidence does not prove that academies raise standards overall or for disadvantaged children,” he added. “While some chains have clearly raised attainment, others achieve worse outcomes creating huge disparities within the academy sector and compared to other mainstream schools.
"Nearly half of all academies are not part of a chain. By being 'stand-alone', these schools risk becoming isolated from others and as such as both less likely to contribute to others and less supported if they begin to fail. In future, Ofsted should require evidence of effective partnership with another institution before any school can be judged 'outstanding'."
The report also calls for the regulatory and funding roles of the Education Funding Agency to be split in a bid to increase transparency.
Tristram Hunt, Labour’s education spokesman, said MPs had offered a “damning verdict” on the government’s policies.
“The report finds that under David Cameron there is no convincing evidence that schools policy has delivered improvements for children in England,” Mr Hunt said. “Progress in our school system has been undone since 2010, restricting the opportunities and life chances of young people.”
Dr Mary Bousted, general secretary of the ATL teaching union, said the committee’s report was “essential reading”.
“It exposes the truth of the matter: this coalition government’s obsession with school structures has not transformed educational standards. Academy status is no magic potion to transform schools,” she said.
Education secretary Nicky Morgan said: “Delivering the best schools and skills so that our young people can fulfil their potential and succeed in life is a vital part of our long-term economic plan for Britain, and free schools and academies are central to realising this ambition.
“This report recognises our plan is delivering what parents want – more chance than ever to send their child to a good local school.
“As a result of our plan, we have a million more pupils in good or outstanding schools compared to 2010, 100,000 more six-year-olds able to read thanks to our focus on phonics, and an increase of 60 per cent in the proportion of pupils studying core academic subjects at GCSE.
“Academies and free schools have played a vital role in this transformation by promoting new ideas and approaches, and helping to drive up standards in other local schools as a result."
Conflicts of interest are 'common' in academy trusts, study warns – 17 September 2014
Academy chain criticised for providing poor education – 18 July 2014