Confessions of a Political Animal

November 14, 2008

Academies: selecting for easy success

Inside the Ashcroft-Vardy Creationist Academy for Boys (formerly the Plato Academy)

Inside the Ashcroft-Vardy Creationist Academy for Boys (formerly the Plato Academy)

In September The Animal wrote about the increasing lack of local authority control over secondary schools in London partially as a consequence of the inexorable march of academies, particularly in the most deprived boroughs.

Part of my concern about this was the deep-seated worry, expressed well by Fiona Millar here, that academies have far too much independence in terms of their selection policies for a state-funded school and are becoming increasingly well versed in finding ways around what rules they do have to abide to keep ‘difficult’ students out. An unwillingness to take children with statements of special educational needs and a tendency towards very high rates of expulsions (8.7 per 1000 pupils in 2006-07 compared to 3.2 per 1000 in comparable community schools) are examples of this. If you subscribe to this sort of view, as I do, then the claims of heavily improved educational standards and outcomes in city academies become a little suspect. There is no great achievement in improving your school’s GCSE results if it is achieved by ‘improving’ the intake.

Worryingly, according to today’s Guardian, it looks like the fears of those who oppose academies may be well founded. The story relates to a report commissioned by the DCSF from Price Waterhouse Cooper (is any government report not commissioned from PWC?) as part of a review of the academy programme, which is expected to be published shortly. I can confidently predict that, assuming the government chooses to publicise this report in any way, that it will be portrayed as representing a triumph for the academy programme as it will

conclude that results have improved markedly.

Just how comprehensive the report is will be demonstrated by whether it mentions the other side to this coin: that the success in improving results has in fact been extremely patchy across academies. In June this year, Ed Balls described 638 secondary schools in England as ‘failing’ on the basis of poor GCSE results, and announced that they would be under threat of special measures – including possibly being turned into academies – if there was not a speedy improvement in results. Problem is, 26 of those ‘failing’ schools are already academies, 4.08% of the total. According to DCSF figures (see page 11), academies make up just 1.35% of all state-sector secondary schools in England, meaning that they are very heavily over-represented amongst what the Secretary of State considers to be poorly-performing schools.

But the true failing of the academies programme, which the PWC report apparently is going to reveal is that the academy sector is experiencing (or, I would contend, causing) an astonishingly rapid collapse in the social representativeness of their intake. According to the Guardian, the report will say that

the proportion of children from poorer homes is “declining faster than [in] England”.

This finding will apparently be backed up by the government’s response to a Lib Dem parliamentary question (not online yet as far as I can tell) that the proportion of academy students in receipt of free school meals, a key measure of poverty levels, has fallen by 16% between 2003 and the present. Across all schools, the decrease is just 1.7% over this same period. Something odd is going on there – whilst the DCSF’s argument that the expansion of the academy scheme into areas with a broader range of demographics has caused this disparity may hold some water, the gap is too great for that alone – and the vast majority of city academies, despite the expansion, are in relatively deprived urban areas. That, after all, was the scheme’s avowed purpose.

The concern that these figures raise, therefore, is that academies are achieving apparent academic success in deprived areas at least in part through back-door selection. Even if this were not deliberate on the part of the school, the report will accept that academies will be under an implicit pressure to undertake effective selection given that there are on average three applications per place, far in excess of their predecessor schools. This is an inevitable consequence of the effective branding by national and local government of one type of secondary school as ‘good’ and suggests that the local students who were meant to benefit from the academy could be being squeezed out by children from a broader catchment area. 

An aspect that I hope the PWC report will address, but may well not, is the effect that academies have on other, non-academy, schools in their vicinity. Alongside the implied stigma of their being ‘second-best’ schools, the findings on the unrepresentative nature of academy intakes suggest that such schools are likely to receive a student cohort heavily biased towards more ‘challenging’ pupils – those from the most deprived backgrounds, with special educational needs or having English as a second language. There is no lack of evidence to suggest that schools without an appropriately mixed intake will struggle to help students with specific needs to succeed – effectively the school ends up with a culture of failure and low expectations. If this is the price of having an academy which simply allows the ‘best’ students to achieve the high results they would have got anywhere, it isn’t a price worth paying.

The second key concern that I expect the PWC report to fail to address in any depth is the lack of any local accountability for academies – and given their ability to set their own admissions criteria, this feeds heavily into the first concern as well. If the Labour government is to persist with academies, at the very least it needs to be looking at strengthening the statutory LEA and parent representation on the boards. I mentioned last monththat despite their being responsible for less than 10% of the start-up cost of the academy, the (normally) private sector sponsor gets to dictate the make up of almost the entire governing board. We previously highlighted the fact that the London Borough of Southwark now has no LEA-controlled schools at any level – academies make up a large number of the borough’s secondary schools. A recent response to a question from the (ironically) Lib Dem Executive Member for Education at Southwark council revealed that no academy had more than two parent governors on its board. Indeed, in the case of the four academies run by Tory carpet magnate Lord Harris, there is just one parent governor on a board of 14. The local authority receives the same level of representation; the remaining 12 governors are entirely within the gift of the Harris Federation. This surely must be a gross betrayal of the principle of locally-run, locally accountable schools.

What we have seen of the PWC report and the information from other sources makes for very worrying reading. By all accounts, City Academies are running a very high risk of entrenching educational and social divides, achieve questionable results and represent poor value for money for the government and taxpayer. Yet there seems no likelihood of them disappearing from the scene anytime soon: the Brown government seems highly committed to them, even if only to prove that it is not junking Blairite ‘modernisation’ of public services. But surely the fact that the Conservative party enthusiastically backs the creation of academies, and promises many hundreds more, should be enough to set Labour alarm bells ringing as to where the policy is leading? Shouldn’t it?

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