Whispers from Westminster

8th January 2016 at 00:00
Partisan analysis won’t aid the academies debate

Ah, Christmas, when teachers and wonks alike relax and make merry. (And yes, now that you ask, mine was lovely. Quick tip – if you have a small child, look up the film Frozen. There’s a good chance your offspring will like it; you can pick up the odd bit of merchandise, too.)

But the bleak midwinter doesn’t mean that there’s nothing going on. For somewhere in between the Queen’s Speech and the Downton Abbey finale, the NUT teaching union (“we oppose academy status”), and the Local Schools Network (“every school should be accountable to its local community”) analysed academy performance. And you’ll be shocked, gentle reader, to hear that their conclusion was that academies do badly.

They start from a sensible question (which the government has been ducking): can we compare academies not only with all other schools but also with schools that are similar to academies? In other words, can we isolate the “academy effect”? Unfortunately, we can’t. Or at least, this analysis doesn’t.

The first bit of number crunching compared Ofsted reinspections of inadequate schools that became academies with those that didn’t. The headline is local authority (LA)schools are six times more likely to escape the bottom grade. Interesting stuff. Except that the not-mentioned-quite-so-loudly bit of analysis showed that more than half of the sponsored academies hadn’t, er, actually been reinspected yet. In other words, there is no official judgement of the sponsor’s impact.

The second bit of analysis grouped sponsored academies against similar LA schools by grades over multiple years. This, too, showed maintained schools outperforming academies. But although this does at least have a full comparison dataset, both bits of analysis suffer from the same big flaw, which is that sponsored academies are not, in fact, similar to their “similar” schools.

When a school falls below the floor target, or gets put into “special measures”, academisation is the default solution. But the extent to which this happens (and the pace) depends on judgements about the capacity of the school and other partners, including the LA, to improve it. For the time being, only if a sponsor is deemed the best solution does it happen. In other words, schools remain LA schools in many cases because they have been judged to have the capacity to improve. It is what DfE calls the “worst” schools that get sponsored. Seen in this light, as ministers are keen to point out, it is easy to realise why these two analyses are not fair comparisons – because those left under the LA are in a stronger position to start with.

I make no bones about the logic of a fully academised system (read my report Primary Focus at bit.ly/PrimaryFocus). But I don’t think academies are a panacea. We should be harsher on underperforming chains. But it does the academy debate no favours to have partisan analysis on the other side pretending that all the data suggests these schools and sponsors do worse for children. ​

Jonathan Simons is a former head of education in the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit under Gordon Brown and David Cameron

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