Over time, I’ve been a critic of the academies system and how it works.  I’ve never been a fan really of giving schools money for specialisms which they can then spend at their own free will – especially without any controls.  The lack of controls is a key feature of academies and why the government is trying to push everyone in a particular direction.

For a while the government has found itself in a bit of a pit when it comes to education.  Despite some moderate spending – 13% of the government’s spending, putting us in the top third of the developed world – the UK has lagged behind many other nations in terms of academic performance.

The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) periodically run the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests to create some sort of standardised measure for schools and countries – the primary subject in the PISA is maths.  You’d think for such a developed nation we’d be right up there – I mean, if we’re in the top third for spending then surely the results would reflected it?

We ended up 26th worldwide.  OK, so that’s not bad, but it’s hardly the greatest results and there were nations out there with far lower budgets who managed to out-score us.  Clearly spending money doesn’t quite equate to results, especially when stacked against others.

OK, so Michael Gove came in and sought to boost the number of academies in order to try and raise standards.  Whatever you thought of him, he certainly made quite the impact – there are now some 4,000 academies in the UK, 20 times as many as 2010.

The result is that 2/3rds of all secondary schools in England are now getting their funding from the government but instead controlling everything themselves.  Gove also created some 250 free schools – basically academies but smaller in scale and often run by community/parent groups – and there are another 112 on the way.

This radical change has lead some to believe that, actually, things aren’t looking too bad.  It would appear that the academies and their greater freedoms are doing rather well.

In a report by the Sutton Trust – entitled “Chain Effect” – we learnt that, for the ‘poorer’ pupils at least, there was cause for celebration.  What they found was that ‘poorer’ pupils in academies were 15% more likely to get 5 ‘good’ GCSEs than those who didn’t attend an academy.

There are quite a few things that were quite vague or badly-chosen by the Sutton Trust – such as how they define ‘poorer students’ – but overall we get the gist of things – academies don’t seem to be shaping up too badly in the scheme of things.

Furthermore, the London School of Economics (LSE) had a few things to say about academies – Professor Machin and Andrew Eyles looked into the benefits of becoming an academy.

  • The fastest improvements in school standards came from autonomous schools who changed to academies – faster than general secondary schools.
  • The biggest improvements seen were from comprehensive schools, rather than other types of schools, such as church schools.
  • 43% of pupils who received Free School Meals attained five ‘good’ GCSEs when their school did not convert to an academy.  This rate increased to 45% for those in schools which did convert.  Not such an enormous rise, but this increase was achieved rapidly.

It hasn’t all been good news, that said.  Earlier this year, the E-ACT chain – who operated over 30 schools up and down the nation – was ordered by the government to hand over 10 of their chains, representing some rather striking differences in quality over the field.  That’s always been my concern – that whilst some will do well others may struggle, thanks to different people with different agendas.

The general sentiment is that larger groups operating academies doesn’t really wash so well – perhaps smaller groups who control fewer than a massive selection could be better.

Of course, a lot of the debate focusses on how well the inspections go and what is made of the schools… but even that is under a lot of scrutiny, as we learn that qualifications are optional for the inspectors and, on a personal note, we can’t really be convinced by their judgements as a result.

Sir Michael Wilshaw, the head of Ofsted, has demanded more powers to inspect academy chains over time – something just a little obvious that’s not come soon enough.  However, I get the impression that with a flawed inspection system we can’t read too much into how good schools are anyway – it’s a bit of an unknown.

There is no doubt in that academies have changed the face of secondary education, but I still think many people are less convinced than the government would like them to be.  One of those people is definitely me.

Yes, the Sutton Trust has painted a rather nice little picture of academies and how they improve standards and results for students.  You could make the argument therefore that the best thing to do is to remove controls completely and let them run themselves.  However, when academies get free reign over how they choose to spend money, we end up with very one-track minds – where schools take on specialisms and let this come at the expense of other subjects.  It’s why at my old secondary school there’s a massive, shiny gym and sports hall, new equipment and dedicated facilites all round for everyone… yet for other subjects students have been asked now and again to contribute financially for basics such as textbooks.  It’s a depressing thing to see – I can only imagine the frustrations.

Worse is when schools mis-manage funds so much so that their preferred way of spending is on prestige projects.  I’m sure my school could justify the multi-million pound investment of a gym, but for many years other things were left to stagnate and fall to pieces.

Yes, there’s some good news to be taking out of the research and some of the more encouraging news.  However, personal experience dictates that I’m taking this all with a pinch of salt.  News that academy chains are handing over control of individual institutions – often by force – makes for painful reading as the government tries to claim universal success.  I can’t read too much into the news coming out of Ofsted either – if you can’t get the basics of inspections right we’re none the wiser.

Could there be light at the end of the tunnel?  Yes.  Is it definitelty there?  No.  Could this light be a freight train?  Well, yeah.  It could easily be a disaster.




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Laura is a Francophile with a passion for literature and linguistics. She also loves skiing, cooking and painting.