This morning, the Sutton Trust report on academy chains was produced. It’s a weighty piece, which anyone can read from their website.
Being an education anorak, I read it. Then I saw this tweet from Tristram Hunt :
“Today’s Sutton Trust report – more evidence of the transformational impact of Labour’s sponsor academies programme on disadvantaged children”
And I almost wept. I almost wept because that’s not what the report does at all. The report shows a very mixed picture indeed. Perhaps crucially, it shows that some academy chains are doing badly on all counts. Some are doing reasonably well on all counts, and some are doing badly in some areas, and well in others. Just like all schools.
There are some worrying trends which suggest that chains have been much more fixated with gaming the league tales than schools in general – particularly the use of equivalent non-GCSE qualifications, and non-adherence to Ebacc – but largely the picture that emerges is one in which schools starting from a low base tend to improve faster than schools trying to improve on a high base – just like normal schools. Some chains are closing the “attainment gap” between disadvantaged and advantaged students faster than others – just like normal schools. There are no particular characteristics of more successful chains which can be easily transferred to others, and the report explicitly notes several times that education is a complex business, and the circumstances in which each school operates differs enormously – just like normal schools.
In other words, what this report showed was that academy chains are not a universal panacea. They’re not even particularly impressive when lined up against, say, London schools as a whole. They are just a collection of schools, some of which are doing better than others. JUST LIKE NORMAL SCHOOLS.
And here’s why I want to weep : this complexity; this reality; this understanding that children are not identical robots but are influenced by a hundred factors which differ from child to child and from school to school; this knowledge that you can’t make schools like branded tins of beans and expect everything in each one to be the same, producing the same results; this is understood by everyone in education. The best solutions to any problems in schools are very very local, right down to individual teacher and classroom level. So why in God’s name do politicians persist in denying this reality, and imposing an alternate model which is, with the best will in the world, simply not supported by evidence ?
Chains have always been a nonsense. The idea that a massively paid chief exec in an office in London can somehow get the results of John Smith in a maths classroom in Runcorn to improve faster by dictating uniform policy, or producing endless ethos statements, or giving teachers a discount at carpet bloody warehouse, has always been, and will always be, an utter nonsense; a distraction. Meaningless presentational cobblers which has benefitted a few hundred very highly-paid executives, made the lives of thousands of teachers more miserable, restricted the opportunities of tens of thousands of students, and resulted in absolutely sod-all : some schools are doing well, some aren’t doing so well.
Yet Hunt comes out with this vacuous, inaccurate, simplistic, politically motivated statement which takes all that complexity, all that intelligence, nuance and reality, and chucks it out of the window. I expected that from Gove, because for him the chains were always about a financial transfer, and never about students. But from Hunt ? Dear God. I despair.
For those who are interested in actual facts, as opposed to Hunt’s misrepresentation, I list below a series of quotes from the report which you may notice seem to contradict Hunt’s tweet. Read them, and weep.
“a majority of the chains analysed still underperform the mainstream average on attainment for their disadvantaged pupils.”
Most academy chains in our study have relied heavily on equivalent qualifications, and underperform on the EBacc measure”
“The NAO found that…the gap between more disadvantaged pupils and others had grown wider on average in academies”
“chains may instigate innovative practice, their imposition..of a central model can reduce individual school autonomy”
“the highest …quintile of schools in 2011 actually had . results from their disadv. pupils …6% lower in 2013.” p29
“the use of equivalents in …sponsored academies in 2013 was significantly higher than in all mainstream schools” p30
“Some have also fallen back [for non-disadv pup] without having reached the attain. level for all mainstream schools” p32
“in some chains, the % of disadv. pupils achieving the expected level has decreased, &the attainment gap has widened” p36
“A few chains [show] strategy focused on [..] the necessary grades in 5 subjects, rather than on a broader curriculum”p40
“spons. acads ..make very much greater use of ‘equiv’ qual ..not as rig. as GCSEs but boosted  position on lgue tabs”p40
“33% of the points recorded by acads in the analysis group were from equivs, compared with 17% for mainstream schools”p41
“If the equivalents are removed, the sponsored academies did less well than all mainstream schools.”p41
“The %s of non-disad pupils achieving EBacc for chains in our  group were generally below the national avge in 2013.”p43
“only one chain – City of London – performed above average for both groups [in Ebacc for disad&non-disad]” p43. ONE CHAIN!
“given policy premise of EBacc it may be a cause for concern that so few chains appear to be supporting this agenda.”p44
“only 9 of 31 chains are performing better than all mainstream schools 2013 in terms of attainment for disadv pupils” p50
“In contrast with the DfE findings  there is very little in common between those that stand out in our analysis.”p52 lol
“Our analysis shows that there is enormous variation between chains in pupil outcomes for disadvantaged pupils,” p53
“maj of chains remaining below the avge for all maintained schools in relation to the outcomes of their disadv pupils” p53
“The very poor results of some chains – both for [non-dis and dis pupils] – comprises a clear and urgent problem”p54
“Far from providing a solution to disadvantage, a few chains may be exacerbating it”p54
“Finally, we would like to reiterate the frequently made point that schools cannot compensate for society,”P55
Obviously, the DFE has also misrepresented the report as being full of praise for chains, but then I never expected anything better from them. When I worked there, there was a really quite high bar for press releases – they had to be evidenced, and have footnotes with relevant information. Now we get press releases talking about what Ministers “believe”, and of course some which are downright misleading. The DFE has long given up any claim to impartial credibility, and now practises faith-based, not evidence-based policy.
But Labour’s continued refusal to engage with reality in education policy, and Hunt’s clear signals that – whatever the evidence – the gravy train will keep rolling for those academy chain executives, makes me despair. No mean feat on the first proper day of the summer holidays !