There has been a lot of media interest recently in the LSE research on the impact of academies by Stephen Machin and James Vernoit. This excellent research paper gives supporters of academy schools plenty of grounds for believing that the policy has demonstrably proved its worth. But it is important that we draw the right conclusions from their evidence.
First, despite some excitable comment from people like John Rentoul, the Machin-Vernoit paper doesn’t show that competition raises standards in schools (via academies exerting competitive pressure on neighbouring schools). In fact, it doesn’t deal directly with the mechanisms through which standards in neighbouring schools might have been raised at all. It refers to two possible explanations – choice/competition or sharing facilities/expertise – but doesn’t investigate either causal mechanism further. It simply says at one point that it is ‘likely’ that choice and competition was the driver. That doesn’t mean that the academy effect on neighbouring schools isn’t real, simply that we can’t jump to the conclusion that competition was driving it.
Competition does have a role to play in public service reform. Carol Propper’s research on the NHS has shown that Tony Blair’s introduction of greater competition between NHS Trusts in 2006 did improve quality: patients discharged from hospitals located in areas where competition was more feasible were less likely to die, had shorter lengths of stay, and were treated at the same cost. Importantly, whether or not competition improves outcomes depends on the way policymakers frame markets for services. So, Propper finds that Conservative health reforms in the 1990s led to a drop in quality because they allowed competition on price, leading to cost-cutting – something which was explicitly ruled out under the later Blair reforms.
In education, evidence from PISA, the cross-national studies of schools standards, strongly supports school autonomy, but does not support competition between schools as a key lever for improvement.
The executive summary of the 2009 PISA results states: ‘Countries that create a more competitive environment in which many schools compete for students do not systematically produce better results.’
So instead of looking to competition as the explanation for what happened in schools near academies, we might usefully think about what else was going on at the same time in the schools system. In particular, there was a sharp up-tick in secondary school standards in Labour’s final years, partly as a result of the National Challenge programme, which mixed tough-edged interventions with support to schools with leadership and teaching strategies.
Number of schools reaching the previous (30%) minimum standard 2004/05–2009/10
Andrew Adonis is also surely right to argue that the governance and leadership of academies is crucial, and that allowing mediocre or coasting schools to convert to academy status may simply provide them with a soft exit from the challenge of raising standards. It is noticeable too that the government’s strategy for tackling failing schools is now weaker than in was under Labour. It replaces sharp, focused intervention with slow-burn market mechanisms and targets that don’t stretch. Schools are now to be measured on whether they achieve a baseline of 35% five GCSEs at A*-C, including English and maths, but no date is set for the achievement of this goal. Contrast this with Labour’s National Challenge, which helped take nearly 360 schools (net) over the bar of 30% five GCSEs at A*-C, including English and maths, between 2008 and 2010.
Second, some commentators have simply assumed that what academies achieved in the past will be replicated in the future. But academies created before 2010 are very different to those schools that have been granted academy status since 2010, as these graphs (drawn from an earlier paper from Machin and Vernoit) show:
The upshot? School autonomy is a key mechanism for raising standards, and to the degree that academy status grants greater autonomy, it should lead to further school improvement. But educational inequalities will widen unless those improvements are greatest for children from low-income backgrounds, whether in failing, coasting or successful schools. In turn, that means better accountability is needed – and intervention strategies where appropriate – for the education provided to those pupils.