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City Academies and Exam Results

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Matthew Taylor, education correspondent

Monday May 22, 2006

The Guardian

Schools in the government's £5bn academy programme, which aims to create 200 privately run state secondaries by 2010, have failed to improve results compared with the comprehensives they replaced, according to a report.

The study, by a senior academic at Edinburgh University, found the number of pupils getting five GCSE A*-C grades including English and maths has increased by 0.2% - equivalent to three pupils - across the first 11 academies.

Ministers have repeatedly defended the controversial programme, claiming that the schools have brought about a dramatic improvement in academic standards, particularly the number of children getting five or more good GCSEs.

But last night union leaders and opposition MPs said the government had misled the public. Sarah Teather, Liberal Democrat education spokeswoman, said: "This research pulls the rug out from under ministers who have made extravagant claims about the results academies are delivering. The truth is that their performance is much less impressive than the government has spun. Millions of pounds of taxpayers' money is being poured into an unproven scheme."

The government said that according to its figures, the number of youngsters reaching the benchmark five good GCSEs including English and maths at the first 11 academies had increased by just over 1%.

A spokesman for the Department for Education and Skills added that the academies' GCSE results were "outstripping" those of their predecessor schools, adding that if English and maths were not included there had been an 8 percentage point rise in those getting five good GCSEs. "This is the true measure of academies' success and the fact they are transforming lives for the better - that's why they're popular and oversubscribed."

But last night the report's author, Terry Wrigley, a senior lecturer at Edinburgh University and editor of the education journal Improving Schools, said that some academies were diverting children away from GCSEs to boost their standing in school league tables. The study found that many children had been switched from taking separate subjects at GCSE to the vocational GNVQ qualification, which counts as four GCSEs in government tables.

"There seems to be something important going on here," he said. "Of course we should value vocational as well as academic learning, but false equivalents simply let down the most vulnerable young people. It may be in the school's short term interests, and the government's, to improve exam statistics in this way. However, as soon as an individual applies for a job or university place, they will face problems. How many employers regard a GNVQ in computing plus a C in art as equal to five good GCSEs in different subjects, especially if you include English and maths?"

According to Mr Wrigley the proportion of children taking GNVQ qualification has risen from 13% at the predecessor schools to around 52% at the academies.

He said the findings would raise concerns about the government's plans for a new generation of trust schools - based on the academy model. "There are variations between academies; some are doing well and some have worse results than the schools they closed down," he said. "So why is so much success being attributed to business sponsorship? This is poor evidence on which to base the entire government strategy of academies and trust schools. Government thinking appears to be based more on faith in business sponsors and privatisation than any educational evidence."

But a spokesman for the education department insisted the schools were reversing decades of educational failure in some of the country's most deprived areas, adding that GNVQs allowed less academic children to leave school with a recognised qualification.

He said the schools were improving standards in English and maths for 14-year-olds, and that would feed through to GCSE scores in the future.

"A more reliable guide to their success in improving English and maths at GCSE in future is that there has been a 9.4 percentage point improvement rate for English and a 12.9 percentage point improvement rate for maths in tests for 14-year-olds. Achieving the required level at these key stage 3 tests is an important indicator of future success at GCSE."

There are 27 academy schools open and ministers hope that will rise to 200 by 2010. The schools cannot charge fees but they stand apart from the state system. Individual sponsors have a large degree of control, appointing managers and deciding the schools' ethos and curriculum.

Sponsors were initially required to pay 20% of the school's capital costs, but that changed to £2m, or less than 5%. The remaining capital costs (around £25m a school) are met by the taxpayer, along with subsequent running costs. So far few sponsors have handed over the full amount.

The government says academic standards are rising more quickly at academies than at the schools they replaced or at other comprehensive schools. Many of the schools have had good Ofsted reports.

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