Do academies really increase the divisions between the rich and the poor?

Bill Watkin, SSAT Operational Director, writes…

So academies “increase divisions between the rich and the poor”, do they?! Today’s attention-grabbing headline on the front page of The Independent is in stark contrast with SSAT’s earlier research about the effectiveness of sponsored academies in closing that gap. It is not a helpful headline for a number of reasons:

  1. It is not a reflection of Professor Gorard’s key findings in his report.
  2. Sponsored academies have well above the national average FSM (see NFER research). Obviously. They were set up to address underperformance in disadvantaged communities. That is exactly what they do. And on the whole they do it well. Statistically, they close the gap more effectively than other kinds of schools, meaning their FSM group does still perform less well than the non-FSM one (the poverty effect is still evident, of course), but not so much worse than they might do elsewhere (the poverty effect is less evident than might be expected – because academy strategies to close the gap are working). There is a way to go yet, but sponsored academies do not “increase divisions between the rich and the poor”. They do the reverse.
  3. Converter academies come from a different place. In order to convert and be awarded academy status, schools must meet certain criteria and submit an application to DfE. They must be judged strong enough to make good use of academy autonomy. Indeed, the first waves of converters had to have an Outstanding judgement from Ofsted. So they had a very different profile from that of sponsored academies. Of course. They were established schools with a history of excellent exam results and Ofsted inspections. On the whole, what was evident was the poverty effect in reverse. Many converter academies have below average FSM numbers. But this does not mean they do not pay attention to the need to close the gap, to deploy strategies to raise achievement and boost the performance of FSM learners. Far from it. They have a professional and moral impetus to close the gap like anybody else.  But their student population is different: where sponsored academies have greater than average FSM, converters have smaller than average FSM. That has nothing to do with the ‘academy effect’ and the structural status of the school. It is simply a question of the communities they serve and the schools’ history.

I generalise, of course, and not all academies can be pigeon-holed neatly into one category or another. But to suggest that academies “increase divisions between the rich and the poor” is to miss the point altogether. There are indeed appalling divisions between the rich and the poor in our society – not just in education – but academy status is not what is guilty of increasing them. Instead, we might look at some of the educational practices and proposals on the horizon and be concerned more with the impact of these on ‘the poor’.

For example, the introduction of terminal exams as the default method of assessment, so that all learners are measured by their performance in an end of course exam, testing their memory recall in all their subjects at the end of 2 or 3 years’ learning. Good for articulate and engaged boys, less good for girls, and very difficult for young people who do not have their own room at home in which to revise, or the internet, or parents who can support them through an intense programme of revision.

Rigour, high expectations of students, aspirational convictions for all; these are welcomed by all the school leaders I know. But so are closing the gap, reducing NEET numbers and making a difference to the community. Academies do not “increase divisions between the rich and the poor”, they work to address them.

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