Analysis published by the membership organisation for local authorities today has claimed council schools outperform academies.
But there are some big flaws in the main findings picked out by the Local Government Association (LGA), which have been seized on to call for a return of new council schools and to criticise the government’s academy reforms.
Here’s our explainer…
1. The major flaw with key council claim
The headline claim in the report is that 93 per cent of maintained schools are now rated ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’, compared to 87 per cent of academies.
The LGA’s Louise Gittins said the research was a “reminder of the superb performance of council-maintained schools”.
The findings were used to renew calls for councils to be allowed to open new maintained schools and gain powers to direct academies to admit pupils without a school place.
Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said the findings “highlight the inherent harm of the Government’s push to full academisation within multi-academy trusts”.
However, there is a *big* caveat which has been less publicised and needs pointing out.
There are two routes for a school to become an academy.
Schools with higher Ofsted ratings can choose to convert, but schools deemed to be failing after being rated ‘inadequate’ are taken away from council oversight. Such sponsored academies are forced to join a trust, which is tasked with improving them.
Steve Rollett, deputy chief executive of the Confederation of School Trusts, pointed out the report “fails to recognise that over time the trust sector has taken on most of the schools that were long term challenges”.
As of May, 12 per cent of state schools were sponsored academies.
This means, as Rollett says, that the council sector has been left “with an unrepresentative and incomparable body of schools” – as all of its failing schools have been taken away and turned into academies.
2. LA school improvement findings also unfair …
Another of the report’s key findings was that maintained schools are more likely to have improved.
The LGA said 57 per cent of schools that were already an academy in August 2019 had improved to a ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ grade by 2023, compared to 73 per cent of maintained schools over the same period.
However this statistic actually included “inherited” grades for academies (the Ofsted grade the school achieved before it became an academy).
This is unfair, because the poor Ofsted grade that triggered academisation and was obtained while a school was under council oversight would have still been attributed to some of the academies in the analysis.
In reality, Ofsted grades are wiped clean when a school becomes an academy.
When comparing only academies that have actually had an inspection since converting, 71 per cent improved their grade to ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ – similar to council schools.
3. …and sponsored academies are improving faster
The statistic highlighted by the LGA also masks an improving picture for failing schools taken out of council control.
Using the inherited grades analysis: the proportion of sponsored academies rated ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ rose from 53 to 67 per cent between 2018 and 2023, a 14 percentage point rise.
Council-maintained schools in this period improved from 89 per cent to 93 per cent, a four percentage point rise.
Professor Daniel Muijs, a former head of research at Ofsted, said the “test” for sponsored academies was “whether they are improving. And data in the actual report suggests they are indeed the fastest improving group”.
However, comparing solely academies that have been inspected since converting, the improvement was smaller – from 75 to 81 per cent over the same period.
And for converter academies, just 90 per cent were ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ in 2023 – fewer than for councils – but a similar-sized rise (up from 87 per cent in 2019, which was used because they couldn’t rely on data for the year before).
4. Are council schools really more likely to stay ‘outstanding’?
The LGA has promoted a finding that a higher proportion of community schools “retained” their ‘outstanding’ grade, but again this is problematic.
The analysis found that 60 per cent of academies rated ‘outstanding’ in 2018 had the same grade in 2023, compared to 72 per cent of LA maintained schools.
However, this refers only to academies that have been inspected since conversion, whereas local authority schools included in the analysis included both those that had been inspected recently and those that had not.
Council schools not inspected for a long time (outstanding schools were exempt from routine inspection for a decade) would have kept their ‘outstanding’ grade by default, making it somewhat of an unfair comparison.
When academies with “inherited” grades from their local authority predecessor are taken into account, 73 per cent kept their ‘outstanding’ grades – which is actually more than councils.
Rollett said it was a “flawed report that lets down the public and the profession in both sectors by failing to distinguish between a proper analysis and ideology”.
But Professor Stephen Gorard said it was “clear that there is no evidence here that academies generally are getting better Ofsted grades than community schools”.