First wave of academy schools created under Labour boosted grades

Ed Balls and Gordon Brown opening the 200th academy school in 2009. Glenn Copus/Evening Standard

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.

Improving grades

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.

Children singing at the opening of Mossbourne Community Academy school in Hackney, 2005. REUTERS/Toby Melville

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.

Autonomy matters

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.