Academies and Charters – where’s the evidence?

Trevor Fisher writes:

1. The Obama victory has lifted the threat of the explosion of Charter Schools in the US that a Romney victory would have triggered. Ann Romney clearly stated the dogma – Charters are a magic bullet being held back by teacher unions. This is the same dogma as the Academy movement in England, as Cameron’s Tory conference speech made clear.

2. However this is only marginal relief. Obama is also committed to Charters and the political consensus on both sides the Atlantic is pro the chaos model. Labour in England created the academies and supports Academies and Free schools.

The Evidence issue

3. The key issue remains the evidence problem, the astonishing lack of evidence on either side of the Atlantic for the new model and the failure to view objectively the development of the systems. This will become even sharper with the release of new exam data in England in January, so a review of the problems is a necessary task.

4. The evidence gap is simply stated, and was stated by Ron Glatter in the Guardian (Teacher Network 29th October). As he says “there is no convincing evidence to support the government’s attempt to make virtually all schools academies or free schools”. As Glatter said in his article, “almost all the data relates to the small number of academies set up under the last government”, and it may be worth focusing on the lack of data produced by government on their new academies as an issue in its own right.

5.  But the central problem lies in the main studies. These are the NAO (National Audit Office) study cited by the Public Accounts Committee (2011) and the LSE study. Curiously, the DFE in a letter to me of 12th January last in stating autonomy improves school performance cited only the Machin and Vernoit (2011) study, the LSE study. I have no idea why they did not cite the NAO study.

6. However academy supporters cannot now cite the Machin and Vernoit study. Machin wrote an article in the Guardian Education section on 10th April 2012, arguing against the government using the LSE study to support the Academisation programme . The key sentence reads: “Unfortunately, our evidence on Labour academies has frequently been marshalled in support of the new academies programme… without offering the caveat that the new academies are rather different…. We do not yet have robust, academically rigorous evidence on the coalition academies”. This statement is valid and has stopped the government using the study in support of their programme. Machin is right to argue the new academies are too different to use the LSE data in support. (Technically they are convertor as opposed to sponsor: but even where new academies have sponsors they are no longer the same – little extra finance and no new buildings)

7. While the LSE study and NAO can still be used for the old Labour academies, with the severe limitations noted below, there is, remarkably, no academic study of the coalition academies, yet we are more than two years into the programme. There never has been any evidence for academies bringing about improvement in primaries, while the idea of Pupil Referral Units being academised and run by payment by results is bizarre. That the government proceeds with no evidence on its own academies is a truly Orwellian situation. This is clearly a dogmatic programme, indifferent to the lack of evidence and without effective scrutiny.

8. Whether the Pearson study will produce evidence remains to be seen. When I contacted them in the summer they were still looking for evidence on the coalition academies. However as Glatter says, we have to rely on the old Labour academies, and the problems here are formidable. Even though the NAO and LSE study are accurate, their data uses Labour rules, which allowed vocational equivalents. Following the cogent objections of the Wolf report, the Tories abandoned these, and though they may have gone too far, gaming obviously took place, and especially in the Academy sector. Take away Vocational Equivalents something very odd occurs. The Academies become the least successful schools, suggesting that they have been gaming. Gaming is unacceptable. If Academies are gaming more than other schools, this is a major scandal.

The Impact Of Ebacc.

9. Once Gove’s chosen measure of EBacc is used, the Academy sector becomes the most unsuccessful in the secondary field. Only one media source has picked this up, namely Channel 4 news. Their “fact check” of 6th January 2012 noted that “Last summer (ie 2011 TF) analysts from the Times Educational Supplement, among others, noted that academies tended to do much worse on the EBacc…. This was not mentioned by the Department for Education when it issued its official press release about the GCSE results”. While the DfE is coy about the issue, it knows about it. The DfE evidence to the select committee on EBac in spring 2011 showed that on EBacc academies do worse.

10. It is important not to endorse EBac, it is a terrible backward looking measure. But the issue is the bizarre situation where a revolutionary government hurtles forward when on its own chosen measure, its chosen schools are the worst performers of all. And the media do not notice. Orwellian or what?

 The surveys of 2012

11. The three major surveys of academy performance in 2012, point in one direction, but have failed to spark debate. The first, Henry Stewart’s for LSN, analysing the 2011 16 plus results as published in January 2012 publication, was picked up by the Observer of 25th February. This can be accessed from

12. However the other two were ignored by media. The House of Commons Library published an objective study on February 28th as Standard Note SNO 4719 and which can be accessed at This has not been analysed by any media that I have tracked.

13. Then on September 4th, a major study by Terry Wrigley and A Kalambouka was published by Changing Schools, which can be accessed at They concluded “Academies are not improving faster than non-academies with similar characteristics… the apparent year on year improvement of many academies also depends critically on their exploitation of alternative qualifications”. On the EBacc problem referred to above, they stated “There is a clear contradiction in government policy in that the supposed success of academies is based on qualifications that ministers distrust and are in the process of abolishing”. With vocational equivalents now “persona non grata”, how can ministers still use them to back the academy programme?

A scandal and a Wall of Silence

14. Academies not merely lack the evidence base for what their advocates call a revolution, but it has become increasingly clear as the coalition has progressed that the evidence base for the academies depends on vocational equivalents which the Tories intend to phase out. This profoundly weakens the case that academies successfully improve performance. With these qualifications stripped out academies perform worse than any other schools

15. We are thus faced with two major scandals – the first is obviously that the government intends to turn all schools into a form of schooling which is inferior to existing systems. The second is that there is no effective media scrutiny.  The possibility of a cover up of major proportions is now developing, made more likely by the increasingly large sums going to academy and charter schools. On both sides of the Atlantic, a wall of silence is developing which will now overshadow the simple question, on which the evidence is now relatively well established, “How well does the new model perform?” How can the silence be broken?

2 Comments on “Academies and Charters – where’s the evidence?”

  1. David Pavett says:

    Thanks Trevor for this clear account of a scandalous situation. I would like to add only that there is a third scandal to add to the governments headlong rush into academisation and the lack of media scrutiny. The third scandal is the lack of any serious political opposition.

    We can say that not only is there no evidence for the superiority of Academies but that there is mounting evidence to the contrary. This evidence would be seized on by any political party that has an alternative vision for education.

    As things stand it looks as though the difference between Labour and the Conservatives is the sort of marginal difference you describe as the outcome of the election of Obama. It is worth reflecting on that marginality in the US case, and then likewise in the English case.

    Just how marginal the relief on grounds of educution, following Obama’s victory, should be is indicated by Diane Ravitch’s article In Mitt Romney’s Schoolroom (New York Review of Books, 12th July 2012):

    “The Obama administration’s first response to Romney’s proposals was to scoff and say that Obama’s K–12 policies had the enthusiastic support of prominent conservative Republican governors, such as Chris Christie of New Jersey and Susana Martinez of New Mexico. Unfortunately, this is true. Apart from vouchers and the slap at teacher certification and unions, Obama’s Race to the Top program for schools promotes virtually everything Romney proposes—charters, competition, accountability, evaluating teachers by student test scores. If anything, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has been as outspoken on behalf of charters and test-based accountability as Mitt Romney. And like Romney, Duncan has disdained the issue of reducing the number of students per teacher.”

    It is also worth noting that the Charter School movement has been the major route for the introduction of business models into school management, not to speak of substantial contracts and outsourcing arrangements, via what Ravitch, in her book the Life and Death of the Great American School System, calls “venture philanthropists”. Foundations set up by Microsoft, and Wallmart and others are now powerful players on the US educational scene. Ravitch says that these new foundations

    “Wanted nothing less than to transform American education. They would not leave local communities to design their own reforms and would not risk having their money wasted. Their boldness was unprecedented. Never in American history had private foundations assigned themselves the task of reconstructing the nation’s education system….”

    “Unlike the older established foundations, such as Ford, Rockefeller, and Carnagie, which reviewed proposals submitted to them, the new foundations decided what they wanted to accomplish, how they wanted to accomplish it, and which organizations were appropriate recipients of their largesse”.

    Obama’s reform movement in education “…gave Democratic endorsement to traditional Republican ideas of accountability and choice, and the result was called bipartisan. Secretary Duncan even said that there was zero opposition to his agenda.”

    In this context it is also worth mentioning that Duncan, who has endorsed mass sackings of teachers even without individual evaluation, appointed as his chief of staff is none other than Joanne Weiss, an educational entrepreneur and former Chief Operating Officer of NewSchools Venture Fund—which received millions of dollars from the Bill and Melinda Gates foundations to assist charter management organizations. Duncan has also appointed people like James H Shelton III directly from the Gates foundation.

    The more one looks into it the more marginal the difference between Obama’s approach and that advocated by Romney appears to be.

    It is not even clear to me just how much relief we should feel at the idea of the fragmentation of English education being carried out more slowly, and perhaps more methodically than to have it done at the lunatic pace of the Coalition.

  2. David Pavett says:

    The link to the House of Commons Briefing Note in Trevor’s piece draws a blank. I think that it should be