Academies in the Lords

The House of Lords held a short debate on Academies and Free Schools yesterday. Most of the speakers had little doubt that the policy has been a complete triumph and has on its own transformed secondary education. The debate was a striking example of the evidence free bubble in which much of the debate on academies is currently conducted.

There was a huge amount of anecdote. Different speakers had experience of one or two schools that had certainly improved and took that as evidence for the whole system. Most of them completely ignored the fact that entirely similar stories can be told about many maintained schools that have also transformed themselves in the last 10 years.

So Baroness Perry who opened the debate asked “why do academies and free schools achieve where local authorities had failed?” Answering her own question, she replied “freedom”.

Compare this simplistic response to the measured view of the RSA Academies Commission which found that the evidence considered by the Commission does not suggest that improvement across all academies has been strong enough to transform the life chances of children from the poorest families …. it is increasingly clear that academy status alone is not a panacea for improvement …. Ofsted has judged almost half of all sponsored academies as inadequate or satisfactory (the latter is now defined as ‘requiring improvement’).”

Most speakers had swallowed whole the DfE spin on performance data. It was asserted that “overall, pupils in sponsored academies have increased their achievements by five times the national average for maintained schools” with absolutely no understanding that such a comparison is completely invalid. Obviously previously high achieving schools won’t increase their results by that much – when you’re on 80% or 90% there isn’t that far to go! To repeat yet again, when sponsored academies are compared with similar schools, the difference vanishes.

Much praise was heaped on the Harris chain. Again there was no analysis of what the data tells us about how that chain gets its results. This chain is one of the biggest users of the equivalent qualifications that Michael Gove is so quick to condemn. Nationally the gap in results between GCSE only and GCSE with equivalents is 6.9 percentage points. In Harris academies* it’s 14.5. Gove’s pride and joy is the English Baccalaureate. Nationally 16.2% of pupils passed all the EBacc subjects. In Harris academies* it was 4.4%.

It was left to Lib Dem Mike Storey to highlight the criticisms made by the Academies Commission. For Labour Maggie Jones argued for a much stronger focus on partnership and collaboration, pointing out that many converter academies were failing to meet their obligations in this respect.

It’s clear though that Labour spokespeople are still finding it difficult to escape from their record and need to try and argue that Labour academies were a narrow and limited initiative and a successful one. Actually we all know that Blair and Adonis would have gone as far as Gove if they could have got away with it.

The reality is that academy status in itself has made little or no difference. Change came through effective management and a ruthless focus on the improvement of teaching and learning. And no doubt is some cases a lot of cash and a lot of building work. Rapid improvement happened in many schools regardless of their technical and legal status. Pretending that academy status is a magic bullet is foolish, flies in the face of the evidence and means that we are not paying enough attention to finding out what really makes a difference.

  • These figures exclude the Crystal Palace Academy who have managed their recruitment so well that they only had one pupil in the lower quartile of results at age 11. How they managed that would be quite another story.

2 Comments on “Academies in the Lords”

  1. David Pavett says:

    This debate is perhaps a significant indicator of current party concerns.

    There were 10 speakers: 5 Conservative; 2 cross bench; 1 Lib Dem; 1 Labour; 1 Bishop.

    It does not look as though Labour wanted to have a forceful presence.

    The Conservatives heaped praise on Labour’s Lord Adonis for his good work.

    Labour’s Maggie Jones defended Labour’s Academy policy arguing that it was aimed at “persistently under-performing schools”. She talked of Labour’s passion to drive up standards but did not stop to consider whether the Academy programme had shown itself to be effective in this. All the other aspects of Academies (removal from local democracy, private sponsors, teachers conditions …) were not mentioned.

    On the assumption that Labour’s Academy programme had been a clear success Maggie Jones went on to criticise the current governments programme but in a rather muted way.

    “Therefore, we have concerns about the focus of the Government’s current academy programme. We are worried about the lack of emphasis on the power of partnership and collaboration. We fear that the early focus on underperforming schools in areas of high social and economic deprivation is being lost. We see a teaching profession demoralised and criticised when teachers are the key to improving teaching quality and we see parents struggling to navigate complex admissions policies. Therefore, I hope that the Minister is able to reassure the House that a more measured approach, addressing these issues and genuinely informed by existing evidence, will be adopted in the academy strategy of the future.”

    What this suggests to me is that current thinking goes no further than making adjustments to Gove’s Academy programme. I get no sense of a radically different direction for education from this.

  2. trevor fisher says:

    David is right,. There is no change in Labour’s support for academies, and none can be expected. How could this happen when Adonis is a key member of the Miliband team? As neil Lawsson of compass has said, there is a concensus through Adonis, Laws and Gove

    Academies are a magic bullet. Period.

    This is a paradigm and tho we may have doubts about Kuhn, he was right on one point. PEople who have swallowed a paradigm reject the evidence against it.

    So no joy from Labour, we hve to look elsewhere.

    I would refer colleagues to my previous piece on Propganda Day. Since the media accept a seriously misleding set of data from the DFE about 16 plus results, the misuse by politicians does not get a hearing. How to crack this is the issue.

    Labour invented the 11 plus and tripartite system which were not in the 1944 Act but appeared in the 1946 Act. It was action outside Labour which brought it into disrepute.

    Labour is not a progressive force on education and has to be forced into a U turn by pressure outside the party.