A new report suggests that the faith placed in independent public schools to improve student results is misplaced. The report, published last month by the UK National Foundation for Education Research, found that academy schools (which are an English version of independent public schools) perform no better than traditional public schools.
The study found no significant difference in the results of sponsored and converter academy schools in the General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) exams and similar traditional public schools called ‘maintained schools’:
The analysis shows that the amount of attainment progress made by pupils in sponsored and converter academies is not greater than in maintained schools with similar characteristics. In almost all analyses the difference in average GCSE outcomes is small and not statistically significant. [p.28]
Academy schools are schools that are independent of direct accountability to local education authorities and are directly funded by and accountable to the Secretary of State for Education. Academies are permitted to develop new curriculum models, determine staffing pay and conditions, staffing structure and set admissions policy, though many obligations still apply such as statutory testing and providing a broad and balanced curriculum. As of February 2015 there were 4,461 academies in England, and they comprised 60 per cent of secondary schools and 13 per cent of primary schools.
There are two distinct types of academies – ‘sponsored’ and ‘converter’ academies. Sponsored academies are run by a sponsor including organisations such as charities, businesses or religious organisations, which are directly responsible for running a school or a group of schools. Sponsored academies were generally lower performing schools that were handed over to private sponsors in the hope that new management would increase school results. In contrast, converter academies are high performing schools that were given the opportunity to convert to academy status under the UK Coalition Government from 2010. They generally have few disadvantaged students. Converter academies are not necessarily run by a sponsor, but operate independently of local education authorities.
This report examined the association between academy status for secondary schools and student results in 2014 GCSE exams, by comparing academies that have been open for between 2 and 4 years and a group of maintained schools that had similar characteristics at the time the schools became academies. It looked at sponsored and converter academies separately.
The analysis compared overall average GCSE performance in 2014 between sponsored and converter academies and similar maintained schools, and also the gaps between different types of students in the same school, such as between students eligible for free school meals and those not eligible.
The report found that the average GCSE results of students in sponsored academies that have been open for between 2 and 4 years and students in similar maintained schools were very similar. Any differences were generally small and mostly not statistically significant.
Regression analysis that took account of underlying differences in the characteristics of the pupils, such as the proportion eligible for free school meals, also showed that the differences average scores and progress from Year 6 were small and not statistically significant. One exception was that the percentage of students achieving 5 A*-C grades including English and maths, was three percentage points higher in sponsored academies than in similar maintained schools. However, the report said that the result should be seen in the context of the other two measures in that results of single significance tests should be interpreted cautiously when multiple tests are conducted.
The report also found a slightly stronger performance by sponsored academies that have been open for longer but said that the differences between them and similar maintained schools was not statistically significant.
Analysis comparing the GCSE results of sponsored academies and similar maintained schools in 2013 and 2014 indicated that changes to the way school league tables were calculated in 2014 differentially affected the GCSE results of sponsored academies. Sponsored academies outperformed similar maintained schools in 2013 when equivalent vocational qualifications were included, but not when they were excluded nor in 2014 when the contribution of vocational equivalent qualifications to pupils’ overall point scores was reduced considerably. This is consistent with previous research findings that sponsored academies make more use of equivalent qualifications compared to similar maintained schools.
The report also found that there is no significant difference between sponsored academies and similar maintained schools in terms of the attainment gap between pupils eligible for free school meals and those that are not.
The report also found that there was no significant difference in school GCSE performance between converter academies and similar maintained schools. There was no evidence of converter school performance increasing relative to similar maintained schools over time. Moreover, the average difference between converter academies and similar maintained schools in 2013 was somewhat similar whether equivalent qualifications were included or excluded, so the 2014 changes to the school performance tables methodology are not an important factor in relation to converter academy performance.
The report said that it is too early to judge the full impact of converter academy status on school performance because almost all converter academies have been open for three years or less. Nevertheless, the analysis shows that there are no short-term benefits in improved school performance associated with converter academy status.
However, there is evidence that the attainment gap between pupils eligible for free school meals and those that are not is narrower in converter academies than in similar maintained schools.
The new report adds to the weight of evidence that independent public schools have had little impact on student results. Many other studies around the world have come to a similar conclusion. The evidence suggests that governments should be looking at other more effective ways to improve student achievement.