Our new research shows that many of the schools that have become academies since the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government came to power are fundamentally different in nature from those that became academies under Labour. Because of this, their conversion is unlikely to generate the same positive results in raising students’ attainment.
Following the 2010 election, the coalition quickly passed an Academies Act, presiding over a dramatic expansion of the academy schools programme. The original programme, which was started by Labour in the 2002-3 school year, gave control of struggling state schools to private sector sponsors rather than local education authorities and enabled schools to operate with greater autonomy. Our previous research showed that in some settings these original schools that became academies managed to achieve sizeable gains in performance for their enrolled pupils.
The coalition government, while continuing to see the original “sponsored” academies programme as a remedy for failing schools, substantially widened the remit to allow certain schools – typically those rated outstanding by Ofsted – to gain the autonomy enjoyed by earlier academies, but without the need for a sponsoring relationship.
The growth in academy schools in England since 2010 has been rapid: more than 60% of schools in the secondary sector are now academies and more than 15% of primaries. Importantly, the vast majority (around 80%) of this growth is due to the new type of academy schools, known as “converters”, which were already performing well prior to conversion.
Who is going to the new academies?
One of the major findings of previous research in this area is that the schools which became sponsored academies before 2010 went on to attract pupils who had achieved higher scores at the end of primary school. At the same time, after becoming academies, they reduced their intake of pupils eligible for free school meals.
Our new research assessed whether these findings are replicated in the new batch of academies. We compared differences in the changes to intake between academies that opened post-2010 with state schools that are set to become academies in the future – but have not yet become academies during the period of our analysis.
On average, we found that schools which have become academies since 2010 exhibited little change in attracting pupils with higher test results at the end of primary school (Key Stage 2), nor in the proportion of pupils on free school meals.
But when we divided the schools into sponsored and converter academies, the results were different. While the former are mainly underperforming schools, the latter are outstanding institutions aiming to opt out from the control of the local authority.
We found that much like Labour’s original sponsored academies, schools becoming sponsored academies under the coalition after 2010 went on to enrol pupils with higher scores at primary once they had gained academy status. In contrast to Labour’s sponsored academies, we found that they also enrolled a larger share of free school meal eligible pupils.
The results for converter academies differ markedly: schools that gained converter academy status showed no change in the scores of incoming pupils at Key Stage 2, and reduced their intake of pupils eligible for free school meals.
Converters vs sponsored
Differences between sponsored and converter academies come as no surprise. In the case of converter academies, high-performing schools have been encouraged to convert to academy status in order to enjoy the greater independence that such status brings, while sponsorship continues to be seen as a remedial route for schools struggling to maintain standards. This difference is mirrored in the characteristics of these two batches of academies before they had converted.
We found that schools that became sponsored academies under the Labour government tended to be towards the bottom of the national GCSE test score ranking in the year prior to becoming academies. Relative to an average performing school, a school in the bottom 15% of the GCSE ranking would be around 60% more likely to become an academy during the Labour years. The converse holds for the coalition period, where being in the bottom 15% reduces the probability of becoming an academy by 24%.
Likewise, we found that a 10 percentage point increase in the proportion of pupils eligible for free school meals lead to a 75% increase in the probability of becoming an academy under Labour. The same increase would have reduced the probability of becoming an academy by 13% since 2010.
The difference between the characteristics of schools becoming academies before and after 2010 – added to the contrasting results we found for changes to pupil intake – suggests that the performance effects on students’ achievement are also likely to differ between the two programmes.
Although sponsored academies under the coalition government show similar changes to their composition to their Labour counterparts, converter academies differ. This makes it difficult to draw firm conclusions that the good performance found for pre-2010 sponsored academies can be extrapolated for the new wave of converter academies that have come to dominate England’s educational landscape.
Although this might seem a simple and obvious point – it is one that is very much worth making and repeating as it has too often been lost on politicians, commentators and academics alike.
Stephen Machin has received funding from the Economic and Social Research Council and Department for Education grants for economics of education research.
Andrew Eyles and Olmo Silva do not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond the academic appointment above.
Struggling schools that were given more autonomy by being converted into academies under the former Labour government have seen improved exam results compared to similar schools that did not become academies, according to our new research.
The question of whether giving schools more autonomy to innovate will push up educational standards has enormous policy importance. Many countries, from the United States with its charter schools to the UK with grant-maintained schools in the 1980s and 1990s, have deviated from the orthodox model of the “local” or “community” school controlled by a government education authority in an effort to increase pupil achievement.
Academy schools first appeared in early 2000s under the Labour government through education policy aimed at struggling schools. Under the following Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government, academies became widespread following the Academies Act 2010, and there are now more than 4,500 academies. This new wave of “mass academisation” is no longer primarily targeted at struggling schools.
The original Labour programme – the subject of our research – replaced existing schools with a new type of state school, run outside of local authority control, funded directly by central government and managed by a private team of independent co-sponsors. Academy sponsors contributed some of the schools’ capital costs and delegated management of the school to a largely self-appointed board of governors who had responsibility for employing all academy staff, agreeing levels of pay, deciding on the policies for staffing structure, career development, discipline and performance management.
This represented a drastic increase in autonomy for the majority of the schools that converted.
Between the 2002-2003 and 2008-2009 academic school years, 116 of England’s state secondary schools gained academy status. A further 17 new schools were opened as academies and a small number of independent schools became academies. In our research, we studied 106 schools that converted from state-maintained secondaries to academies under the Labour government.
The vast majority of these schools were performing below the national average in terms of the performance of pupils at GCSE level – also known as Key Stage 4 – and were operating in disadvantaged local education authorities. For instance, in 2002, at the 106 academies that we looked at, 35% of pupils achieved five A* to C GCSE grades, against a national average of 51%. At these schools, 32% of pupils were eligible for free school meals, compared to a 17% national average.
Estimating the effect of attending an academy on pupil performance is difficult. A straight comparison of pupils in other state-maintained schools with those attending academies is unlikely to give causal estimates of the impact of attending an academy due to the non-random nature of both the school’s decision to become an academy and the pupil’s choice to enrol in one.
To address these concerns we focused on outcomes for pupils who, although they sat their Key Stage 4 exams in an academy school, enrolled in the school prior to it becoming an academy. We then compared outcomes for these pupils with those attending similar schools that became academies later, in the 2009-10 and 2010-11 school years.
We found that those attending an academy scored better in their GCSEs than those who did not. The results were the equivalent of their best eight grades going from eight Cs to six Cs and two Bs. These effects are stronger when the pupil attended the school for longer and when the school attended gained relatively more independence upon gaining academy status.
The more marked gains were for those who had spent four years at academies that had converted from community schools. The increase was roughly equivalent to a child’s eight best grades at GCSE jumping from eight Cs to seven Bs and one C. This translates into a 16 percentage point increase in the probability of achieving 5 A*-C at GCSE.
Two other aspects also have an impact on grades. When we looked at the results for schools that already had some autonomy from LEA control before academy conversion, such as foundation or voluntary-aided schools, we found little positive impact on grades following conversion. The strongest impact was on community schools, who were in full LEA control, and then became academies. This strongly suggests that the level of autonomy gained determines the impact of academy conversion on pupil performance.
A further effect is that once a school converts to an academy, it attracts pupils who had achieved better test scores in primary school. We found that in the year of a school’s conversion to an academy, there was a jump in the average scores on the tests its new Year 7 intake took at the end of primary school (Key Stage 2 tests). Thus pupil composition changes and emphasises the need in research to look at pupil performance for pupils already enrolled in the school prior to conversion.
To sum up, the Labour government’s sponsored academies programme gave struggling schools more freedom and stronger leadership, leading to significant improvements in pupil performance. The greater the autonomy gained the more pronounced are these effects. The Labour academies studied in our research are, for the most part, very different from the new academies set up by the coalition government and there is no reason to suppose the results should carry over to them.
In fact, our paper concludes with a warning not to translate the findings over to the new coalition academies which are mostly different to the disadvantaged schools that converted to academies under the first wave of the programme. Studies of the newer academies, and free schools, will be an important research agenda in the coming years.
Stephen Machin has received funding from the Economic and Social Research Council and Department for Education grants for economics of education research, but this article does not reflect the views of the research councils.
Andrew Eyles does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond the academic appointment above.
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