Academies gaming results at twice the rate of other schools

In the wake of the high-profile Downhills Campaign there have been a greater than usual number of stories about academies in the media. Michael Gove’s increasingly desperate (but no less dangerous) tactics in pursuing his vision of a privatised state education system, and the protests this has spawned, have brought his forced academies programme to the attention of mainstream commentators such as the BBC. Here is an example from Birmingham – Montgomery Primary School teachers strike over academy plan. The BBC largely remains stubbornly uncritical of the Government’s policy. Listen to this Radio 4 Today programme for an unashamedly pro-academy take on the Downhills campaign. Newsnight on the 16th January was an attempt at least, at presenting a balanced view, focusing albeit rather poorly, on the very real issue of backdoor selection in academies. The Guardian meanwhile, has been commenting on academies at about twice the usual rate, raising issues such as  undemocratic centralised power, privatisation & predatory chains , unfair admissions, schools run for profit, and OFSTED as an instrument of Government.

When it comes to the forced academies policy, it seems each time the DfE is asked to comment, variations on the same tired old phrase get churned out; ‘Academies are improving results at twice the rate of other schools,’ or ‘Academies are improving their results at twice the national average rate.’ It was always a feeble justification, being a cherry-picked snippet of data presented out of context, based only on data from Secondary schools, and ignoring as it does, a multitude of other factors that ought to be considered when looking at successful methods of school improvement. But, (Michael Gove’s childish name-calling aside), this would seem to be the DfE’s only response when challenged on their aggressive, underhand and undemocratic attempts to force sponsored academy status on Primary schools against the wishes of whole school communities. See Warwick Mansell’s blog post: The very undemocratic process of forcing academy status on Primary schools for a detailed description of how these tactics are played out in practice.

It has long been known that academies’ improved results are not all that they appear to be. The National Audit Office published a report in September 2010 that showed that academies achieve improved results by a combination of entering pupils for GCSE equivalents with higher pass-rates and by changes in their intake – they were found to have reduced numbers of disadvantaged pupils. The NAO findings were based on data from 2006-2009. Here is what the report had to say on curriculum changes in academies;

2.12 Figure 102.12 overleaf shows that, nationally, academies had proportionately fewer GCSE entries in 2008-09 than in 2006-07, and more entries for qualifications equivalent to GCSEs. However, a similar trend can be seen in both comparator schools and maintained schools overall. For later academies, the proportion of entries for GCSEs decreased more rapidly than in other schools, and the proportion of entries to GCSE equivalents in 2008-09 was seven percentage points higher than earlier academies, and ten percentage points higher that comparator schools.

Government officials describe this practice as “gaming” the system in order to climb the league tables. Now, two years later, a release of new data from the DfE in the wake of the Wolfe Report and Michael Gove’s demonisation of vocational education, reinforces and updates the National Audit Office findings. Expert, Dr Terry Wrigley has analysed 2011 exam results and has found many academies’ use of GCSE equivalents to be ”excessive”. He says “This seriously inflates the attainment figures for academies, compared with all schools nationally, creating a false impression that they are successful.” In reporting Dr Terry Wrigley’s findings, the BBC is starting to sound a tiny bit critical of academies – Academy schools: Vocational equivalents ‘inflating results’ and more surprising still, even the Telegraph is having a go. Dr Terry Wrigley’s full report has been published on the Anti Academies Alliance website.

So what of the DfE’s claim that academies are improving at twice the rate of other schools? In fact Terry Wrigley found that the gap that emerges in academies’ results when GCSE equivalents are not included is twice that of maintained schools. So the DfE could more accurately say that academies are gaming results at twice the rate of other schools.

So has the DfE dropped the claim? Well, in the BBC report it certainly seems to have been downgraded. A DfE spokesperson is reported as saying that  ‘academies’ results, including in the core subjects of English and maths, were improving faster than the national average.’

Fact Check anyone?

Update: 21st February 2012

In this report in the Haringey Independent the DfE has returned to making the false claim that “Academies ..  are improving their results at twice the national average rate.”