New research from the UK has added to the weight of evidence dispelling claims that greater school autonomy will improve school results. The research examined the experience with academy schools and found that they have not increased school performance and that the results for disadvantaged students in academies are no better than of those in non-academy schools.
Academy schools in England are publicly-funded schools that have greater freedom over how to allocate their budgets and over staffing than more traditionally-governed government schools. They are managed by outside sponsors from business, religious and community groups and were initially established in disadvantaged areas. Now any school can convert to an academy and operate as a largely autonomous school.
On the surface, academies appear to have done worse than other government schools. In 2011, 59% of students in mainstream government schools achieved five or more A*-C grades (including English and Maths) in the General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSEs) or equivalent qualifications, compared to 48% of students in academies that had opened by 2009. Moreover, 53% of students in mainstream schools achieved five or more A*-C grades in the GSCEs alone compared to only 35% of academy students.
However, these figures are misleading because until recently academies were established to serve students in disadvantaged areas of England and these students generally achieve at lower levels than other students. Academies appear to have increased the percentage of students achieving five or more A*-C grades on the GCSEs or equivalents in comparison to other schools.
The new research shows that these gains by academies are also misleading because they are inflated by extensive use of alternative qualifications. Academies rely on ‘equivalents’ to GCSEs twice as heavily as other schools to boost their results – the gap between the percentage of students achieving five or more A*-C grades in GCSEs plus equivalents and GCSEs alone in mainstream schools is 6 percentage points compared to 13 percentage points in academies.
Without these ‘equivalents’, students in academies are only two-thirds as likely to gain five or more A*-C grades as students in other schools. In a fifth of all academies, the use of equivalents inflates their attainment figures by over 20 percentage points.
Much of the debate about the success of academies revolves around the interpretation of ‘equivalent’ qualifications. It is a well established principle that comprehensive secondary education should include vocational courses alongside a broad academic curriculum, as part of a broad and balanced curriculum. The inclusion of some vocationally oriented courses provides a wider curriculum offer to all young people and can raise the motivation and opportunities of those who are less ‘academic’.
However, there is evidence that school league tables are driving the curriculum in many schools, especially academies. Schools with less advantaged pupils are often placed under pressure by threats of closure if their headline statistics are deemed to be ‘too low’. This has led schools to engage in what the current the coalition UK government and others call ‘gaming’ with alternative qualifications.
Several problems have been found with the way that vocational qualifications have been used in recent years as equivalent GCSEs. Many students are being channelled into taking these subjects in order to enhance their school’s league table performance, rather than being able to select them as part of a broad and balanced curriculum. Some of the alternative certificates are unrealistically deemed to be equivalent to one or more GCSE qualifications at A*-C grades. These include qualifications which are not actually vocational subjects but simply easier duplicates of existing GCSE subjects.
The researchers note that GCSEs are organised so that about a third of students achieve D-G grades, whereas many vocational alternatives are premised on students passing the qualification provided that they complete the required tasks to a basic specification. As a result, the official assumption that these alternative qualifications are automatically ‘equivalent’ to A*-C grades is seriously misleading.
The research found that in some academies with low GCSE results the whole student cohort was entered for these vocational alternatives and no student failed to obtain the ‘equivalent’ of A*-Cs. It also found numerous examples of academy students obtaining E, F or G grades at GCSE in Science or Maths who were deemed to obtain the official ‘equivalent’ of an A*-C grade in the same subjects through alternative certificates.
Other results from the research also show that academies are doing no better than other schools. In particular, disadvantaged students in academies do no better than those in other schools on average and they do worse in GCSEs alone. The proportion of disadvantaged students in academies (opened by 2009) who gain five or more A*-C grades or equivalent including English and Maths in 2011 was the same as for all government schools – 34%. In the case of GCSEs alone, 24% of disadvantaged students in academies achieved five A*-C grades compared to 29% of those in all schools.
Some argue that the longer established academies have much better performance because it takes time to make change work. The new research shows that 40% of disadvantaged students in academies that had been open for five or more years achieved five A*-C grades in the GCSEs or equivalents compared to the 34% in all schools. However, the percentage of disadvantaged students achieving five A*-C grades in the GCSEs alone is almost exactly the same in the longer established academies as in all schools – 30% compared to 29% respectively. The researchers suggest that the better performance by disadvantaged students in academies for the GCSEs or equivalents is likely due to greater use of equivalent qualifications.
Overall, the paper concludes that academies have not proved to have any greater success than other government schools in lifting the achievement of disadvantaged students:
Although academies tend to have a larger proportion of disadvantaged pupils than the average for mainstream maintained schools – as indeed do many schools in similar locations – the crucial question is whether disadvantaged pupils do better there than elsewhere. The answer to that question is clearly no. [p.15]
The research also analyses the oft-repeated claim that academies are improving GCSE results much faster than in other schools. It finds that the claim does not stand up to scrutiny. The researchers matched academies with similar non-academy schools and found that from 2008 to 2011 the proportion of students in academies achieving five A*-C grades improved 15 percentage points compared with 14 percentage points for the matched set of non-academies.
The researchers conclude that their analysis has demonstrated that claims made on behalf of academies are unjustified:
Taken across the board, academy status does not lead to any significantly higher attainment for disadvantaged students, greater improvement, reliability of support to prevent very low attainment, nor a solid core of achievement in academic subjects. [p.37]
The conversion of schools to academies is at best a distraction and at worst a tragically false direction. [p.39]
The alleged superiority of academies depends on their zealous exploitation of GCSE ‘equivalents’.
Finally, the researchers state that their investigation adds to the growing body of research into similar schemes elsewhere (US charter schools and Swedish free schools) which shows that they have not led to any real improvement. The research is another blow to claims that greater school autonomy leads to better school results.
T. Wrigley & A. Kalambouka 2012. Academies and Achievement: Setting the Record Straight.