True cost of plan to turn all schools into academies remains opaque

Resistance is mounting to Nicky Morgan’s plans to convert all schools into academies. John Stillwell/PA Archive

In its recently published white paper on education, the government wants to ensure that “discredited ideas unsupported by firm evidence are not promoted”. Yet the Conservatives – who like to think of themselves as “the party of choice” – plan to force all schools to become academies by 2022. The secretary of state for education, Nicky Morgan said the academies policy has “no reverse gear”.

This has invoked a strike ballot by the National Union of Teachers, condemnation by Labour and even some Conservative councillors.

Over the last five years, the direct cost to the Department for Education (DfE) of conversions to academy status has been about £320m for 4,897 schools – about £66,000 per school.

With 16,800 schools, including special schools and pupil referral units, to be converted to academy status – the Labour party estimates that the total conversion cost to the DfE will be £1.1bn, plus another £200m for estimated legal costs for local authorities. The government contests these figures and claims that around £600m has been allocated for academy conversion and the new formula for allocating schools funding – but it is unclear exactly how the money is to be split between these two items.

Thousands of conversions

By March 2016, DfE data showed that 2,949 primaries (17% of total state-funded schools) and 2,007 secondaries were academies – so the Labour Party’s scaling up of the future direct costs of converting the remainder is a useful estimate. But it is only a ballpark figure.

There are 16,766 primaries and 3,381 secondaries in England so there are many more primaries to convert. Many primaries are small – hence they cannot be stand-alone academies – and they will have to become part of existing multi-academy trusts. This means the cost of conversion per school could be lower than previously thought.

Yet the costs are likely to be on-going rather than one-off. And there are potential hidden costs – time taken up by teachers, governors and local authorities in the conversion process, and then adapting to the “new rules” that come with academy status.

The pace of change may exacerbate these hidden costs. Even in that bastion of free enterprise, competition and innovation, the United States, only about 6% of the school population are in “charter schools”, a form of academy, 25 years after their introduction.

When you look at the details of conversion, monitoring standards, funding and accountability of academies – the costs of running the system look certain to be high. This will involve the DfE funding arrangements and dealing with appeals against academies and failing schools. In 2015, the Education Select Committee recommended that more support is also needed for Regional Schools Commissioners, who are now charged with overseeing academies.

Multi-layered responsibility and oversight invite difficulties and PR disasters – particularly when it comes to accountability to parents of primary school children. Transparency and accountability are the antidote, but this costs money. In the US, the monitoring regime for charter schools is more open and stringent (contracts are for three to five years rather than seven in the UK) – partly because conversion has been voluntary or new schools have been established as charters.

Is it worth the cost?

All might be well if the switch to academies produced clear cut, positive results across all pupils, which outweighed the transition costs and any higher running and monitoring costs to the state.

The “gold standard” of analysing the success of schools that have been given more autonomy has come from the US by way of a coin flip. Studies using entry via a lottery mean that students at US academy-type schools, known as charters, can be “randomly matched” with state-maintained schools – so researchers can compare “apples with apples”.

In the UK, we don’t have admission by lottery and so researchers compare pupils who voluntarily choose to go to academies or free schools with pupils who go to state-maintained schools. It’s of course possible that the children at academies may do better or improve faster, simply because they start with higher academic attainment levels, better home environments, better neighbourhoods, greater motivation and maybe, better academic genes.

Entry-lottery studies are the best method of ensuring that some of the unobserved differences between academy and state-maintained pupils, which may be the cause of future pupil performance, are not wrongly attributed to the change to academy status.

This is the weakness in the white paper’s analysis – the methodology is often not comparing apples with pears, but apples with elephants.

In the UK, there are plenty of unanswered questions about the effectiveness of academies. For example, we don’t know yet whether giving schools more autonomy helps disadvantaged minority pupils – or “average” or “exceptional” pupils. Nor do we know what truly causes improvements in a school’s results – better teachers, higher salaries, longer academic year, support from other schools or children’s services, or conversion to another set of administrative structures.

What is clear is that the evidence does not support rushing through the forced conversion of all schools into the academy structure by 2022 and that the costs of the policy are still far from clear.