No Evidence that Independent Public Schools in England Raise Standards

A UK House of Commons report published last week says that there is no evidence that academies, England’s version of independent public schools, improve school results. The report by the bi-partisan education select committee said that although it was clear that academies led to greater competition, there was not yet proof that they raised standards for disadvantaged students or overall. Several issues raised by the report are very relevant to the expansion of independent public schools in Australia.

The report states that “current evidence does not allow us to draw conclusions on whether academies in themselves are a positive force for change” [p.3]. Furthermore, “academisation is not always successful nor is it the only proven alternative for a struggling school”. While these conclusions relate to secondary academy schools, it also said that “there is at present no convincing evidence of the impact of academy status on attainment in primary schools” [pp. 3, 54].

It also found mixed outcomes within the academy sector. While some chains of academy schools have raised attainment, others achieve worse outcomes than comparable mainstream schools. This has created huge disparities within the academy sector and compared to other mainstream schools. It said: “What is clear is that the picture is highly variable across the country and in the case of sponsored academies, across chains” [p. 23].

The committee also criticised exaggerated claims for academies by the UK Government. It said the Government should stop exaggerating the success of academies and be cautious about firm conclusions except where the evidence merits it [p. 64].

The landscape of schooling in England has been transformed in recent years with the expansion of academy schools and free schools under the UK Coalition Government.

Academy schools are state funded schools in England which are directly funded by central government and are independent of direct control by local authorities. They have more control over their budgeting than state-maintained schools. Academies can set teacher pay and conditions which differ from those in maintained schools and can employ unqualified teachers. Academies are self-governing and are constituted as non-profit charitable trusts. They may receive additional financial support from personal or corporate sponsors.

The first academies were established by the Labour Government in 2002 and have rapidly expanded under the Coalition Government since 2010. Of the 21,500 state-funded schools in England, 17,300 are maintained schools, about 4,200 are academies. About 60 per cent of all secondary schools in England and about 13 per cent of primary schools are academies. While a far smaller proportion of primary schools than secondary schools are academies the number of schools involved is much greater.

Academies can be divided into two types: sponsored and converters. Sponsored academies are typically previously low performing schools which have been compelled by the government to convert to academy status. As such, they typically have a large proportion of disadvantaged students. There were 1,112 sponsored academies in 2014. The process involves a sponsor setting up an academy trust which then signs a funding agreement with the government. Sponsors are responsible for the finances and performance of their school or schools, selecting the governing body and recruiting the principal.

An academy trust may operate a single school but may also be responsible for a chain of schools. In June 2014, there were 192 chains of three or more academies with a single sponsor. The largest chain had 74 schools.

Converter academies are schools that have voluntarily become academies. Unlike sponsored academies, converters are previously high performing schools, typically with low numbers of disadvantaged children. In 2014, a total of 3,062 schools had converted to academy status.

Free schools are a type of academy school. They are new schools that can be established by parents, teachers, charities and businesses through an application process to the Government. In 2014, there were 252 free schools in England.

The evidence presented to the committee focused on sponsored academies because converter academies have only been operating for a short time. Evidence was presented showed that sponsored secondary academies have increased the percentage of students achieving General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) benchmark of 5 or more GCSE passes at A* to C grade, including English and mathematics by more than the average for all schools. The gap between all schools and sponsored academies in terms of GCSE passes has narrowed since 2007-08.

Other research presented to the committee showed that when outcomes were measured in GCSE points, excluding equivalent qualifications, student achievement in sponsored academies was not significantly different from similar non-academies over time [p.14]. Apparently, it is an established trend for sponsored academies to make greater use of equivalent qualifications than other schools. The UK Government has been concerned at the extent to which equivalents are taken, and has significantly reduced the number of equivalent qualifications that count for the 2014 league tables.

There was also no clear evidence that sponsored academies are raising the achievement of the most disadvantaged students. Conflicting evidence was presented to the committee by the Department of Education and other parties including academic experts.

As regards converter academies, the report noted evidence that shows no significant difference in attainment progress after two years between these academies and similar non-academy schools, suggesting the school performance benefits are limited, at least in the short term.

One of the main problems raised by extensive school autonomy for independent public schools such as academies and free schools is that it undermines collaboration between schools and the sharing of best practice. Competing schools are reluctant to share information or assist each other. This issue is well-recognised in England and considerable efforts have been devoted to promoting collaboration between autonomous schools.

The House of Commons education select committee had previously raised concerns about the monitoring of the commitment given by converter academies to assist other schools. Its new report found that there was still no formal monitoring of converter academies’ collaboration with other schools.

The report re-affirmed that collaboration is essential in improving a school system. It said that harnessing the effectiveness of partnerships to raise school performance is particularly important where schools are autonomous. It found that “more needs to be done to encourage collaboration and ensure that it happens” [p.38]. It recommended that Ofsted (Office of Standards in Education) include evidence of collaboration in its inspection criteria and that a school must demonstrate effective partnership with another school in order to be judged ‘outstanding’.

Inadequate monitoring of academy chains was also a key issue considered by the committee. Academy chains are exempted from Ofsted inspections which means that there is no independent source of information about their quality. The report recommended that the Department of Education should analyse and monitor the performance and other data relating to academy chains, and publish the results broken down by school and trust, in the interests of transparency and accountability.

The report also noted concerns about the lack of monitoring and oversight of academies and free schools. The report found that evidence given to the inquiry supported the need for a middle tier between the central government and individual schools. It concluded that more local oversight is needed for academies and free schools with more effective working with local authorities. It said that this is particularly important in the case of stand-alone academies which have the potential to become isolated without challenge or assistance from other schools, an academy sponsor or the local authority.

In summary, the House of Commons education select committee report represents another challenge to the idea behind academies and free schools that more autonomy and more competition will lead to school improvement and narrowing the achievement gap between advantaged and disadvantaged children. There is no compelling evidence that academies are succeeding in this aim. University research studies of academies have found mixed results and the new report found no more convincing evidence that they are succeeding.

The report has immediate relevance to the expansion of independent public schools in Australia. It is a policy priority for several governments even though the evidence from the United States, Sweden, New Zealand and England shows that charter schools, free schools, autonomous schools and academies have little or no effect on student results. Governments would do well to look at the evidence before it is too late.

Under the new model, many schools have become completely isolated. The intermediate tier of regional support for schools has effectively disappeared. Many principals feel abandoned, isolated and without adequate support. At least, the new Victorian education minister has recognised this and promised to wind back the autonomy agenda and give more support for schools. The House of Commons report’s recommendations for increased regional support and more collaboration between schools should be taken up by all governments.

Trevor Cobbold

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