The Government continues to promote its flawed academy programme on the basis that it improves pupil attainment in national tests and exams and supports school improvement. Yet a succession of research reports has found no evidence of any link between academy status and educational standards.
Even Schools Minister Nick Gibb has been forced to concede that: “This government does not believe that all academies and free schools are necessarily better than maintained schools.”
In July 2017 the Education Policy Institute (EPI) in partnership with the London School of Economics (LSE) published a study of the performance of converter academies, sponsored academies and multi academy trusts (MATs). Its overall finding was that “academies do not provide an automatic solution to school improvement” and that “there is significant variation in performance at both different types of academies and Multi-Academy Trusts”.
In relation to primary converter academies it concluded that “there is no real change to the primary school test scores of incoming pupils once the schools become converter academies.”
Researchers found “no evidence of a positive effect on GCSE attainments of converter academies which were rated as ‘good’ or ‘satisfactory / requires improvement’” prior to conversion. The study was unable to identify any improvement related to schools becoming sponsored academies since 2010.
Another report from the EPI published in 2018 compared school performance and pupil improvement at every trust and local authority in England at both key stage two and four. This report found that there is no difference in the performance of MATs and groups of local authority schools. It also revealed that academy chains are “disproportionately represented” amongst the worst performing groups of primary schools, with 12 making it into the bottom 20.
These findings are the latest in a line of reports which cast doubt on the claims made for MATs and school improvement.
The House of Commons Education Select Committee published a report on MATs in February 2017 which concluded that: “There remains a high degree of uncertainty around the effectiveness of MATs and there is not yet the evidence to prove that large scale expansion would significantly improve the school landscape.”
In July 2016 the DfE released analysis of the performance of primary and secondary MATs in terms of value added (a measure of the progress students make between different stages of education). This found that in two thirds of MATs the value added was below average for their secondary schools, with just one third above average. The analysis also found that, for both primaries and secondaries, there was no "correlation between the current value added measure and the different length of time schools have been within each MAT”, contradicting the Government’s claim that sponsored academies improve over time.6
Ministers often justify the academies programme by saying that it is improving results for disadvantaged pupils. However, in 2016 the National Foundation for Education Research (NFER) concluded that, “there is no compelling evidence of academy status being associated with an improvement in the performance of pupils eligible for free school meals (FSM)” in either secondary or primary schools.
The impact of MATs on low income students in secondary sponsored academies has been examined by the Sutton Trust in four consecutive annual reports. All four reports found “very significant” variation in outcomes for disadvantaged pupils, both between and within chains. Of the 48 chains analysed for the most recent report, only eight saw poorer pupils with high prior attainment go on to progress more than the national average. Longitudinal analysis over four years shows that the proportion of chains in which disadvantaged pupils performed above the mainstream average had fallen between 2013 and 2016.
Councils are best when it comes to boosting the inspection grades of inadequate schools, analysis of official figures suggests. Researchers looked at the extent to which schools rated inadequate by Ofsted in 2013 had improved by the end of 2017. They found that those schools that had remained council maintained were more likely to be ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ than those that had become sponsored academies.
The NEU argues that, instead of continuing to pursue a failed policy, Government should focus on cost-effective and proven school improvement initiatives, such as local partnerships and federations or larger scale interventions such as the City Challenge programme. These interventions are supported by evidence. For example, a 2014 National Audit Office (NAO) report found that informal interventions, such as local support, were more effective than academy conversion.