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Perhaps the DfE needs a culture change

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“I have not come across a case in which I have thought becoming an academy wouldn’t work for a school”, a civil servant recently told LGC.

The civil servant continued “Good schools get better by being left to their own devices, and underperforming schools improve”. These statements are not backed up by independently refereed research. And neither is the formulary used by generations of impartial civil servants when conveying controversial policy “Ministers believe that …”.

The DfE publication Attainment at Key Stage 4 by pupils in Academies 2011 analyses the 2010 and 2011 GCSE results, and their vocational equivalents, for sponsored academies and a group of comparator schools. Even though there are nearly 2000 Academies now, the report uses 162 schools which were sponsored Academies in September 2010 and matches each with a non-Academy school. Whether this is a good method is not discussed as presumably schools which were chosen for sponsored Academy status were those which were underperforming in the first place and therefore will find it easier to show more improvement.

Although no difference is found between the two sets of schools using just the 2011 results, the report finds that sponsored Academies were “improving at a faster rate” when compared to their performance in 2010, with sponsored Academies improving by 5.6 percentage points and comparator schools by 3.4 percentage points. Statistically this is a small difference on a relatively small number of pupils. No analysis is done on whether the difference is significant. One is left to conclude that the purpose of the report is to support the Ministers’ opinions.

Sir David Bell, the recently departed DfE permanent secretary, has said that “most of us would accept that there is a strong body of opinion behind these [Academy] reforms”. And opinions matter even if research called in aid is flimsy. But it is the underlying culture that is worrying where opinion trounces rigorous research-based decision making. Perhaps it is not just the banking industry which needs a change of culture but the DfE too.

John Fowler, policy manager, Local Government Information Unit

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