Grant-maintained schools' reputation for academic excellence has been seriously undermined by new evidence that local authority-controlled comprehensives have matched their A-level and GCSE performance.
Researchers at the Open University who compared the exam results of 91 GM comprehensives and 206 local education authority secondaries found that they were virtually identical - once pupils' social backgrounds were taken into account.
They acknowledge that the GCSE results of opted-out schools improved faster during the first half of the 1990s but say this was mainly because they reduced the number of pupils from poorer families. "GM comprehensives with more flexible admissions policies have been better placed to covertly select pupils by ability," they say.
Rosalind Levacic and Jason Hardman report that the average A-level points score (12.4) was the same in both sectors between 1993 and 1996. The proportion of pupils gaining five or more A*-C GCSEs was higher on average in the GM schools (36 per cent) than in LEA comprehensives (31 per cent) between 1991 and 1996. A higher proportion of GM pupils also gained at least five GCSEs at A-G - 88 per cent compared with 83 per cent in LEA schools.
But the researchers point out that 80 per cent of the GM schools reduced the proportion of pupils entitled to free school meals during that period. The equivalent percentage for LEA schools was 52 per cent.
Levacic and Hardman also note that a 1997 report by the London Research Centre suggested that LEA schools had a higher proportion of pupils who were not fluent in English.
The statistics therefore indicate that GM schools have been "poor value for money", the researchers say in a paper to be published in the Journal of Education Policy.
They offer two reasons why GM schools have not done significantly better than LEA secondaries. Many schools opted out to become independent from the LEA and gain extra funding rather than because they had a burning desire to improve pupils' performance. Furthermore, the Government has been pressing all schools to improve.
"The GM schools policy, despite its rhetoric, did not create schools sufficiently differentiated from LEA schools, in degree of management autonomy or, more importantly, in approaches to teaching and learning," Levacic and Hardman conclude.
"In fact the ability to improve examination results by recruiting fewer socially disadvantaged pupils, may have diverted school managements from the substantive changes needed to deliver superior educational performance to that of LEA schools. The GM policy provides yet another example of how additional expenditure on education does not of itself deliver concomitant improvements in learning."
They believe that the policy's main positive legacy - now that GM schools are being converted into "foundation" schools - is the option for all schools to manage 100 per cent of their budgets.
But they suspect that there is a more malign legacy that is harder to quantify - an increasing trend to segregate school communities by social background.
"The performance of grant-maintained schools in England: an experiment in school autonomy", by Rosalind Levacic and Jason Hardman, is to appear in a forthcoming issue of the Journal of Education Policy, published by Taylor and Francis, 1 Gunpowder Square, London EC4A 3DE (tel. 0171-583 0490). The research was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council.School of Education, The Open University, Walton Hall, Milton Keynes MK7 6AA . Tel. 01908-653661. R.R.Levacic@open.ac.uk
WHAT THEY SAID ABOUT GM SCHOOLS
"GM schools will be a threat to the complacent and to the second best. They will challenge all within the service to do better."
Kenneth Baker, the then education secretary, at the 1988 North of England Education Conference.
"The common experience of GM schools is that their status significantly enhances the work of the school. The real sense of ownership they enjoy has proved highly motivating. GM schools have found that they can use to very good effect their share of the former LEA's central costs."
Department of Education, 1992 "GM schools are proving popular and effective with parents. Examination results and attendance rates continue to be higher at GM comprehensive schools than at their LEA counterparts."
DFE departmental report, 1995 "GM pupils excel despite larger classes."
The TES, October 27, 1995 "Opt-out schools go to the top of the class."
London Evening Standard, October 20, 1997 "Inspection evidence shows that the quality of teaching in GM and LEA maintained (secondary) schools is very similar" but GM schools are "better managed and more provide good value for money".
Office for Standards in Education, 1998
THE STUDY'S OTHER MAIN FINDINGS
The popularity of schools was not determined by either GM status or the number of years a school had been GM. The ratio of applications to available places was mainly affected by the proportion of pupils gaining five or more "good" GCSEs; improvement in exam results; and the percentage of pupils entitled to free school meals (FSM). The more FSM pupils a school had, the less popular it was with parents.
* Contrary to common belief, GM schools received less funding per pupil than LEA secondaries in three of the five authorities studied (the sixth LEA the survey covered had no GM schools). This was because extra cash was provided for schools with larger numbers of pupils with special educational needs.
* Schools where relatively few pupils gained five GCSE A-Cs in 1991 tended to make better-than-average progress. "Low initial scores seem to have acted as a spur to improvement," the researchers say.
* The status of a school - for example, GM, single-sex, or church - did not appear to affect the rate of improvement in GCSE results. The most important factor was the proportion of pupils entitled to free school meals.