After years of debate over the effectiveness of academy status, the Education Policy Institute has now released data which it says shows the causal impact of academy status on school performance. Editor Laura McInerney explains what the researchers found. 

 

Does academy status lift performance in schools? It’s a vital question given the country is spending millions changing schools into academies. So far there had been no answer. But a new report, commissioned by the Education Policy Institute and published today, finally provides some.

To start with the conclusions:

1. It seems that Labour forcing badly performing schools to become academies before 2012 was a good thing. Hurray for Labour.

2. It also seems that, after 2010, letting outstanding schools convert into becoming academies was also a good thing. Well done the Coalition.

BUT

3. For everyone else after 2010, becoming an academy doesn’t seem to have had much effect. In fact, it might have made things a tiny bit worse.

*

So, why is there a difference between pre-2010 and post-2010 academies?

Before 2010 the Labour policy for academies focused solely on schools in areas with a track record of under-performance. Only 203 schools were opened in this timeframe, and they mostly had business people as ‘sponsors’ – originally named to reflect the cash put into the schools from their businesses. These sponsors helped direct a new ethos for the school.

After 2010, when the Coalition government took over, any school with an ‘outstanding’ rating from Ofsted was able to apply to become an academy. Over time the policy shifted so that schools with other ratings could also voluntarily apply for academy status. Between May 2010 and May 2015, there were 3,270 converting schools, known as ‘academy convertors’.

In the same 2010 to 2015 time frame, an additional 1,200 schools were also forcibly converted to become academies due to their under-performance, similar to the original Labour model. These are still known as ‘sponsored academies’.

 

The research uses a maths model that attempts to strip away some of the problems of comparing different school types. As with all statistical models, it appears to have made some compromises in order to meet its function, and more information is yet to be released in the full report, but from what I’ve seen so far the analysis is pretty reasonable.

 

What the report finds is that becoming an academy before 2010 changed a school’s  intake. In the years following conversion, a secondary school will typically see the average key stage 2 results of its year 7 pupils rise steadily with greater variation.

Some people will leap straight to the conclusion that this means academies are fiddling their intakes and shunning poorer or lower-attaining children. But we must be careful. It is also possible that as the reputation of a school grows, it simply attracts a different audience. Making a previously unattractive school into one desired by middle class parents was, in fact, an original aim of the academy programme. The argument was that if an intake is almost all lower attaining, then it can become difficult to attract teachers who want to work with pupils across a broad range of abilities. This situation might also increase the need for additional resources on the school beyond its capacities. Hence, changing intakes might be a sign that the school is actually performing better, or at least has improved its reputation, and does not necessarily indicate manipulation.

 

What the report then goes on to look at is pupil outcomes – and the pre-2010 Labour academies do very well. As mentioned above, for the pre-2010 Labour academies it does seem there was a substantial effect on GCSE grades. The researchers say the causal effect was a jump of one GCSE grade across five subjects. There’s also a significant increase in non-Russell Group university attendance for pupils. (Russell Group admissions remained elusive).

 

But post-2010, becoming an academy no longer seems to improve the results of pupils on entry. There seems to be almost no effect at all, or a slightly negative one.

 

And only schools rated outstanding gain a positive boost in their results when becoming an academy. For everyone else, the pattern appears to be that they were doing better for a few years and then, post-academy status, the schools in the study saw their results dip a touch.

*

As ever, I have outstanding questions. One thing missing from the early release of the report was the impact of national dips in GCSE results during the 2012-14 Coalition period, compared to the ever sky-improving GCSE results under Labour in the late 2000s. The way the results are calculated, by comparing schools that converted at certain times to other similar schools that converted later, it’s possible that these differences are already accounted for. But I couldn’t quite work out how.

The second question I have is the claim by the researchers that post-2010 inadequate-rated academies didn’t show a positive effect. It seems counter-intuitive that failing schools given an intervention before 2010 saw extraordinary improvements, but failing schools given that same intervention after 2010 didn’t see any positive effect.

A few things might be happening. First, the language in the report isn’t clear. It talks about ‘inadequate convertor’ academies. But almost all schools which were inadequate and became academies after 2010 did so through the sponsor route. A few might have converted some other way, but they would be a very weird, very small sample. Now, it could be the researchers didn’t include the 1,200 post-2010 sponsored academies in this inadequate category and so the lack of positive effect reflects the oddness of an exclusive small group. Or, it could be that all the sponsored inadequate academies are included – in which case I am still concerned about the lack of effect.

A second reason for the lack of impact, could be that the way the Coalition government have made inadequate schools into academies was not as effective as the way it was done under Labour. Certainly the Labour model seemed more aggressively about turnaround, with more resources, and more scrutiny, due to the smaller numbers of schools involved.

Thankfully, chief reporter John Dickens will be at the launch of the full report and so is tasked with finding answers to these questions.

*

What the findings do raise is the possibility that academies are causing good things for schools that are very high or low in quality, but it is flummoxing those in the middle. This is not a surprise. Professor Becky Francis, director of the Institute of Education, has said for many years that academy freedoms tend to cause greater variance in school performance. Freedoms allow top performers to fly, but they also send struggling schools into tail spins.

We now know that academies work ‘sometimes’. They work particularly well when a school is already outstanding, or if they were spectacularly failing and get a lot of support.

The next challenge for the government is figuring out what to do when academies are mediocre and hence find themselves floundering.