Note to new government: time to focus on teaching quality, not school structures – that’s the evidence

Research evidence, including some led by Graham Stuart, Conservative MP, challenges the claim on the Marr Show, made by Education Secretary, Nicky Morgan MP, that pupil results showed academies are a better kind of school than local authority ones.

In January 2015 in the cross party education select committee published a report into academies and free schools. The committee was chaired by Conservative MP, Graham Stuart who concluded:

“It’s still too early to know how much the academies programme has helped raise standards. What we can say is that, however measured, the overall state of schools has improved during the course of the programme.

Current evidence does not prove that academies raise standards overall or for disadvantaged children. It is clear though that academisation has led to greater competition, challenging many maintained schools to improve and incentivising local authorities to develop speedier and more effective interventions in underperforming schools.

More evidence is urgently needed on the impact of academy status on primary schools and particular efforts made to encourage them to work in collaboration.”

Professor Becky Francis, who advised the committee, and is Professor of Education and Social Justice, King’s College London also commented earlier this year for the Education Media Centre urging a policy emphasis on teaching quality over school structures:

“As noted in the Select Committee report, the evidence on whether or not academies have had more success in raising attainment than other equivalent schools is mixed, and hard to pin down.

Assessment is complicated by the proliferation of different types of academies, and their very different circumstances when they became academies.

For example, sponsor academies were usually low-attaining schools, often located in areas of disadvantage; for converter academies, it’s the opposite.

This makes analysing both attainment and improvement across academies quite difficult: low achieving schools have more room for improvement; and likewise successful schools would be expected to have high levels of attainment. It is really too early to judge the impact of academisation on converter academies.

For sponsor academies, including those instigated prior to 2010, the evidence is mixed. Overall, evidence suggests a slight improvement against similar local authority schools for those open the longest; although there has been a particular reliance on equivalent qualifications in sponsor academies.

Looking at the picture more closely, we see both examples of striking success, but also of significant failure – this was also the finding of research on the success or otherwise of academy chains.

These findings highlight the need for greater rigour and transparency in the system, especially, closer checks on those sponsors coming into the system, and firmer action with those that do not succeed in securing improvement.

But also, they support the impetus for a renewed focus on the quality of teaching practice in all schools, in contrast to the preoccupation with structures in our education system.”

Note to journalists: The research into academy chains (7th paragraph) was carried out by Becky Francis, Merryn Hutchings and Rob De Vries.

Research evidence also challenges Nicky Morgan’s claim this morning in defence of free schools saying many have been established in socially deprived areas .

Free schools are failing to serve the neediest children in their areas, according to a study from UCL Institute of Education, published last year.

The study shows that schools in this flagship Government programme are opening in disadvantaged neighbourhoods, but are taking fewer poor children -those receiving free meals – than the other local schools.

The net effect is that the free secondary school pupils themselves are close to average for all English secondary schools, and the free primary school pupils very slightly better off.

In addition, primary children who enter free schools are academically ahead of their peers. They have significantly higher levels of attainment than the average not only for their neighbourhoods, but for the country as a whole. When it comes to evaluating the performance of primary free schools, it will be important to examine their value added, rather than their academic outcomes, which are likely to be better than average because of their intakes, says the study.

Francis Green, Professor of Labour Economics and Skills Development at the Institute who led the research said:

“It appears that, so far, the places in Reception at free primary schools are being filled by children who are somewhat less disadvantaged and more advanced in their development than the average. This outcome may be disappointing for the government, which had hopes that its free schools policy would be a vehicle for delivering social justice.”

Nicky Morgan ruled out profit making schools in England . Some academics support that . Sweden has profit making free schools and in December 2013 Dr Susanne Wiborg, Head, Lifelong & Comparative Education, Institute of Education, University of London commented on the role of free schools in Sweden’s falling position in international tables:

“The Swedish Free Schools have played an indirect role in the decline of the PISA scores over the last decade. However, the question still remains to what extent these schools actually can be blamed for this. We do know that low achievers usually from lower socio-economic background in Sweden don’t perform as well as they did in the past, because of the surprisingly high level of ethnic and social segregation in society. The Free Schools no doubt have contributed to this.”

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