The argument against academies…

The Conservatives probably think they have ‘won’ the argument, mainly by asserting that academies perform better and by including in their latest Education Bill a provision that so-called ‘coasting’ schools (along with those deemed to be ‘failing’ by OFSTED) should be turned forthwith into academies. We know, of course, that, intellectually at least, the argument is not won at all. To add weight to our argument, here is some written evidence, submitted to the parliamentary ‘Bill’ committee for that bill, which has just appeared on the official parliamentary website. Please read the highlighted text below:

“Education and Adoption Bill
Written evidence submitted by Stephen Gorard, Professor of Education and Public Policy, Durham University, UK (EAB 19)

The author

Professor Gorard is an expert on school compositions, school outcomes, and interventions to reduce the poverty gradient in attainment at school. He is the author of Overcoming disadvantage in education, London: Routledge, and around 1,000 other books and publications including most recently:

Gorard, S. (2015) The complex determinants of school intake characteristics, England 1989 to 2014, Cambridge Journal of Education, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/0305764X.2015.1045446

Gorard, S., Siddiqui, N. and See, BH (2015) How effective is a summer school for catch-up attainment in English and maths?, International Journal of Educational Research, (forthcoming)

Siddiqui, N., Gorard, S. and See, BH (2015) Accelerated Reader as a literacy catch-up intervention during the primary to secondary school transition phase, Educational Review, 10.1080/00131911.2015.1067883

See, BH and Gorard, S. (2015) The role of parents in young people’s education – a causal study, Oxford Review of Education, 41, 3, 346-366, 10.1080/03054985.2015.1031648

Gorard, S., Siddiqui, N. and See, BH (2015) An evaluation of the ‘Switch-on reading’ literacy catch-up programme, British Educational Research Journal, DOI: 10.1002/berj.3157

Three problems

In order not to repeat evidence that has been, and will be, submitted by others, this brief summary draws attention to evidence on three issues that will turn out to be problems for the Bill in respect of converting ‘coasting’ schools into Academies.

1. The definition used for ‘coasting’ will continue to be unfair to the staff and students in schools facing greater challenges in areas of relative disadvantage. It is clear that judgements about the purported quality of schools, whether from OFSTED or DfE, routinely become entangled with variable school compositions. For decades, schools giving cause for concern or placed in special measures have tended to be in deprived areas such as inner-cities. These schools face the challenges of dealing with one or more of the following – high levels of disadvantage, high student mobility, temporary issues caused by immigration such as having English as a second language, and higher levels of unrecognised special needs. Setting an arbitrary level such as 60% of pupils meeting a target, such as a KS4 level 2 indicator, shows no recognition of this compositional problem and its geographical basis. If the national average for all schools is above 60% (as it is), the fact that some schools, including grammar schools, are above this and other are below tells us more about the inequalities of school intakes than about what goes on in those schools.

2. There is no convincing evidence that Academies, per se, are ‘better’ than the schools they replace or supplant. Therefore, making schools convert to Academies will have no benefit – the schools will be no more effective with an equivalent student intake. It is clear that individual school outcomes are a largely consequence of their student intakes. Special schools have lower attainment results than the national average because they recruit only children with severe learning challenges. Grammar schools have higher than average results because they recruit only children with high levels of pre-existing attainment. These results are clearly not because one set of schools is good and the other bad. And so it is with all schools. Insofar as we can explain school outcomes (80%-90% accuracy) they are entirely predictable from the prior attainment and socio-economic characteristics of their student intake. There is no consistently better school or type of school. Any purported school ‘effects’ are tiny in comparison to the composition effect, and wildly volatile from year to year. The quickest way for a school to raise its results is to change the nature of its intake. In which case it is no longer dealing with an ‘equivalent intake’.

3. There is strong evidence that diversification and fragmentation of what is intended to be a national system of schools is linked to higher socio-economic segregation between schools, and all of the dangers that this entails. It is peculiar that what is intended to be national taxpayer-funded system for all in which it should not matter where one lives or which school one attends is being converted into a set of disparate schools and chains. Even considering only mainstream settings, we have faith and secular, specialist and non-specialist, 11-16, 11-18, 13-18 and so on, Foundation, CTCs, selective and comprehensive, Academies and Free Schools. Each of these gives families a reason to choose a school other than its effectiveness. This is linked to segregation which is higher than that imposed by geographical, economic and housing differences. Segregation here means that children of particular kinds are more strongly clustered in specific schools than is necessary. This is linked to a higher poverty gradient in attainment, worse civic participation, lower aspirations and life chances. The quickest and cheapest way to eliminate schools below the ‘coasting’ threshold would be to change the allocation system so that all school took their fair share of disadvantage and low attainers. But this would mean moving schools towards uniformity – elimination of selection, faith bases, specialisms and so on. If we know which of the types of schools above is the best then all schools should be of that type, and all families should be able to use them. Give that, in fact, we do not know which type of school is best, there is no reason to have any variation anyway. So again, all citizens and all tax-payers should have the same opportunities wherever they live.

July 2015

Gorard, S. (2014) The link between Academies in England, pupil outcomes and local patterns of socio-economic segregation between schools, Research Papers in Education, 29, 3, 268-284, DOI:10.1080/02671522.2014.885726

Gorard, S., Hordosy, R. and Siddiqui, N. (2013) How stable are ‘school effects’ assessed by a value-added technique?, International Education Studies, 6, 1, 1-9, http://dx.doi.org/10.5539/ies.v6n1p1″

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