If Michael Gove really cared about academic achievement…

…he’d say something about academies’ English Baccalaureate results

 Monday, March 28th, 2011

Last autumn, Michael Gove appeared on the BBC’s Question Time and launched a passionate attack on what he claimed was a glaring injustice within English education.

Children from disadvantaged backgrounds, he suggested, were being let down by a system which assumed they could not succeed in traditional academic subjects.

He said: “If you look at what happens in France, or in Holland, or in Canada, or in Singapore, or in Hong Kong, or in any of the countries which have got education systems many of which are much better than our own, they expect children at the age of 16 to have a rounded education.

“[This] means they are fluent in their own language…[and expected to] master the sciences, to study a humanities subject like history or geography, which build human sympathy. That’s the rounded education they expect.

“And the problem we have had in this country, as an historical problem, is we have automatically assumed an academic education is only for a minority: only 25-30 per cent of people can succeed. 

“Well, that is rubbish.”

“All of us are facing an educational challenge in this country,” he continued. “How can we ensure that we end the patronising twaddle of the last 30 years that assumes that just because kids come from working class backgrounds, they cannot succeed in academic subjects?

“With my background, I am determined to ensure that people have that chance. And when people say ‘oh, you are demoralising children because they cannot succeed’, what I hear is the next generation being written off because we do not have high aspirations for them.

“One of the reasons I am in politics is to make sure that we transform our education system so that kids who have been written off in the past at last have the chance to succeed.”

Well, all this was greeted enthusiastically by some commentators.

But is this passion real?

If so, you have to wonder why Mr Gove has not taken a much closer interest in what has been going on in his favourite type of school: academies. His lack of interest might suggest his emotion is synthetic. Or to be more charitable, when a seemingly heartfelt desire to do what he thinks is the best thing by working class pupils runs up against the demands of political ideology, ideology wins.

Before going into the detail on academy results, I should state something now.

It is this: I am a “what works” type of person.  I don’t like ideology, or the idea that something should be implemented because it fits a theoretical schema or model of how things ought to run best. This means I’m not one to dismiss any type of organisation of schooling out of hand. I am, as might be guessed from the length of some of the blogs on this site, a details person.

Any consideration of academies, then, should be carried out on the basis of as full as possible an understanding of the effects of these new schools across a local area. Academies are sometimes sold on the basis that their governance supports innovation, and that they have brought dynamism to England’s system. Evidence on this should be weighed against that relating to other arguments, including the financial implications of these new school arrangements, the impact of academy freedoms on equity, their effect on teacher recruitment and retention, their effect on local admissions and the interaction with accountability to local people. Above all, we should try to get an understanding of the detail of what has happened in academies and other schools in their localities.

The trouble is that we never get this fair reckoning, in my experience, because politicians of both this and the former government who shape the debate are so committed to the policy, as a structure of running schools which they prefer to the traditional model of state education, that they don’t present evidence even-handedly. GCSE results press releases have consistently highlighted academies’ results as better than those of non-academy schools, based on faster average improvements in academies than other schools on the main GCSE performance measures, when there are other ways of looking at what has been going on, and even though basic questions such as whether the pupil make-up of each academy has changed or not compared to its predecessor school(s) are not addressed in the statistics. Remarkably, this cheerleading presentation of academy results has continued even after the publication of results in Michael Gove’s new “English Baccalaureate” measure.

In January, league table results which saw Mr Gove introducing that new performance indicator – the English Baccalaureate – were revealing, although not surprising, in what they documented about the statistics of academies.

These schools, usually set up through a contract agreed between a sponsor and central government, had long been said by Mr Gove and his Labour predecessors to be improving their headline GCSE results at well above national average rates.

This was based on the main figures published under Labour: the proportion of their pupils achieving five A*-Cs including English and maths, in GCSEs or vocational equivalents.

But the “Baccalaureate” figures, which ranked schools on the proportion of their pupils achieving good GCSEs in not just English and maths, but also two sciences; history or geography; and a language, painted a very different picture. Many academies were right at the bottom of the English Baccalaureate league tables, with nearly a third of those with results to report recording zero per cent of their pupils achieving this new benchmark.

Some three quarters of the academies with results to publish had five per cent or fewer – that is one pupil in 20 – achieving the EBacc, compared to a national average figure that had 16 per cent of the cohort achieving the new benchmark. At all but 24 of the 187 academies with results, performance on the EBacc was below 10 per cent.

The press release put out by Mr Gove’s department – which would be very worried about the situation in academies, you would expect, if it shared his concern about pupils missing out on a broadly academic education as he defines it – said nothing about these statistics.

Instead, it only mentioned academies in reference to the old measure, proclaiming that: “Academies continue to show improvements in getting five good GCSEs (or iGCSEs or equivalents) including English and mathematics at a faster rate of 7.8 percentage points compared to other schools, which improved by 4.5 percentage points.” Government comment on schools’ results in the EBacc focused, then, on the 16 per cent figure for schools as a whole, which was seen as low and might underscore, in the public mind, a view that radical change – including academy status – was needed. In the press release, this seemed to be underlined by the inclusion of comments from two academy managers without, again, reference to academies’ EBacc results.

Many have said that, and might argue here, that the retrospective EBacc measure is unfair on schools. But it seems to me that someone introducing this measure simply with a desire to highlight the performance of schools in the subjects contained within it, without prejudice towards any particular type of school, would use the EBacc results to include a least a heavy element of caveat in what was being said about academy results overall. Yet the spin – or a desire to present academies as always better than other state schools – seemed to be taking over.

In recent weeks, the TES has been following these results up with stories, first, that only six per cent of pupils in schools run by the government’s three favourite academy companies achieved the English baccalaureate this year, compared to the national average of 16 per cent.

The government, or backers of academies, including those teaching in them, might respond here by saying that this comparison is unfair. Labour’s academies, which were the only ones open and able to provide the GCSE figures on which these statistics are based, were set up mostly in disadvantaged areas, with challenging intakes, so it would not be right to try to compare them to the national average, which will include schools with more middle-class  pupils.

But that, as Mr Gove’s comments to Question Time should make clear, is not a defence open to him if he wants to say what is going on in academies is not significant. For he has argued that we need to have high aspirations for good academic achievement for children from disadvantaged backgrounds. All schools should be getting good results according to his new benchmark, and the results of academies were especially concerning, you would expect him to say if he was being consistent.

Even more damningly, the TES also produced statistics claiming that academies actually fared worse, not just than the national average English Baccalaureate figure, but when compared to non-academy schools with similar intakes.

“No pupils gained the English Baccalaureate in 31 per cent of the academies that entered pupils for GCSEs and their ‘equivalents’ last year,” it said.

“But only 17 per cent of non-academy comprehensives and secondary moderns with the same proportions of pupils on free school meals with special educational needs completely failed to score on the EBac.” [My italics].

Going slightly further up the league tables, the TES found that 73 per cent of academies achieved less than five per cent on the EBacc measure, compared to only 55 per cent of non-academy comprehensives and secondary moderns with comparable numbers of special educational needs and free school meals.

Not once, though, as far as I am aware, has Mr Gove made any comment about this disparity. It begs the obvious question: is something peculiar going on in academies which is producing these numbers? Mr Gove doesn’t appear to have  looked very hard for an answer.

Indeed, in a letter to academy principals last month, after the EBacc results had been made public, Mr Gove began: “The Academy programme has already proved itself an exciting, powerful and dynamic force for higher standards in our schools.”

He added: “Sponsorship has been key to transforming some of our most challenging schools bringing added drive, vision, resources and expertise, to create a culture of higher aspiration.”

Although the letter talked about the importance of getting all schools above a new floor standard” of 35 per cent or more of pupils achieving five or more GCSE A*-Cs including English and maths, there was no mention anywhere within it about academies’ results in the EBacc.

Now, if Mr Gove were really concerned to look without prejudice at the effects of government policy in particular types of schools, he might also have wanted to consider a report produced in 2009 by the Historical Association, which contained some very interesting statistics, relevant to academies and other schools, on the exposure of pupils to one academic subject Mr Gove has been very concerned to emphasise.

This report, based on a survey of 644 schools including 23 academies, found that only 59 per cent of academies taught history as a discrete subject in year seven, which was the lowest of any of the four categories of schools. (The others were non-academy comprehensives, grammars and independents). Some nine per cent of academies had a two year key stage 3 curriculum, allowing pupils to drop history at 13, compared to six per cent in comprehensives, three per cent in grammar schools and one per cent in the private sector.

Nearly 48 per cent of academies reported that year seven pupils spent an hour a week or less on history, compared to 30 per cent in comprehensives, 12  per cent in grammars and seven per cent in independents. There was a greater spread of teaching time in comprehensives, however, with 38 per cent likely to devote more than 90 minutes to history a week, a higher figure than for grammar school and fee-charging schools. “The academies remain the least likely to give such generous allocations,” said the report. “Less than 20 per cent of them thought it worth investing more than 90 minutes a week in the subject.”

Academies also seemed to be reducing the time allocated to the subject faster than other types of schools. More than half reported that the time devoted to it in year seven had dropped since the previous year, compared to one third of comprehensives, while time reductions in year 8 and 9 were also most widely reported in academies (35 per cent, compared to 20 per cent for comprehensives).

In terms of GCSE history numbers, academies were the only type of institution where greater numbers reported a decrease in entries for the subject (33 per cent of academies, compared to 17 per cent of comprehensives) than an increase (19 per cent of academies, compared to 27 per cent of comprehensives).

The report also found extensive evidence, with no particular type of school mentioned, of history struggling for GCSE numbers in the face of competition from other subjects, with vocational qualifications “which in many cases lower-attaining students were being compelled to take” mentioned in a quarter of cases.

The report includes the following quotation, not mentioning what type of institution was involved. “Students have been deliberately denied an opportunity to study history by forcing them down vocational or academic pathways. GCSE students have also been taken off courses against their wishes to do BTEC qualifications in six months so that the school can boost its position in the league tables. This has happened to students who were otherwise on target for a C/B in history but were doing badly on their other optional subject.”

 It quotes a teacher, from an academy, saying: “History is seen to be too academic! Entrance to the course is based on Fischer Family Trust predictions, and students who are predicted lower than a B are not allowed to study the course…We are also not allowed to run ‘entry level’ GCSE courses for students with specific needs, as that is not thought to be meeting the attainment targets for the academy.”

Education by Numbers indeed, in both cases, and seemingly classic examples of the need of the institution to raise its statistics being put above individual student concerns, at least as these history teachers see it.

Ofsted’s report on history teaching in primary and secondary schools, published this month, also documented lower numbers taking history in academies. It found: “Entries for GCSE history from academies were significantly lower than for maintained schools overall,” at 20 per cent of students in academies compared to 30 per cent for non-academy state schools (and 48 per cent in fee-charging independent schools).

In 2009, the TES reported on a study by academics at the university of East Anglia and Southampton, which also found results pressures as a heavy influence on schools’ decisions over history.

The academics are quoted as saying, with no particular type of school identified: “Pupils’ interests were not necessarily put first. For the senior leadership team in some schools, the first priority was the school’s examination profile.”

Beneath the TES story, there was the following comment:

“I used to work in an academy in London, and as I was leaving I had to rank every pupil in year 8 as an A, B or a C. A means that they could get an A or a B at GCSE. Therefore history appeared in their option forms. The B category were pupils who were borderline C/D. The C meant that they were predicted grades G to D. Neither categories B or C had history on their option forms! They were encouraged to take other less rigorous subjects.

“Even though I had known students previously predicted Ds and Es get outstanding results, who went on to do exceptionally well at A-level, and some even went on to do history at university.

“What was most upsetting was the case of one student, with a range of learning difficulties. He loved history, and orally he was phenomenal. He was put in category C, and was therefore being guided down a different pathway. He was devastated that he would not be able to take history in year 9-11. His mother rang the school, and explained that it was likely whatever course he was entered into, he would be unlikely to either pass or do very well in, so why couldn’t he at least take a subject he enjoyed?

“The plea fell on deaf ears and the boy was placed in some random BTEC or GNVQ course taught by some bland paper pushing academy drone who was being shipped in to ‘sort’ the school out of failing pupils and failing teachers.”

The notion of pupils being forced into taking subjects for the good of the school’s statistics reminded me of a conversation I had in late 2009 with the parent of a child at a school which had just converted to be run by the Harris Federation of South London Schools.

I was following up on a story in the local paper on the anger of the mother, Moira Macdonald, that her daughter, studying at Harris Academy Purley, near Croydon, had been forced to take a sports BTEC worth two GCSEs.

The academy replaced Hailing Manor school, which was under pressure because its headline results were below the Labour government’s “floor targets”, at short notice in September 2009. In May of that year, Dan Moynihan, chief executive of the Harris Federation, wrote to parents saying that students would be “required” to do a BTEC in sport.

In the old school, French had been compulsory, but it became an option at the academy. The new academy’s options structure allowed pupils to take up to two optional GCSEs alongside English, maths, science, enterprise, religious studies and the BTEC sports course. The BTEC sports course (worth two GCSEs) would be taught in only three periods a week, said its options booklet, rather than the five the school was devoting to maths GCSE, which is worth one.

The parent, Moira Macdonald, told me her daughter had opted for geography and history and therefore had had to drop the French, even though she would have preferred not to rather than taking the sports BTEC because she had no interest in pursuing a career in sport.

Ms Macdonald said: “The academy is promising massively improved results and I am not surprised considering they are making soft subjects compulsory and dumping hard-earned GCSEs.

“The Harris Academy overrode the GCSE core subjects set for my daughter and her colleagues before the takeover, in order to improve their league table results.

“This is no way to educate kids – they need to be taught proper subjects and come away with proper qualifications.”

These quotations were featured in a report by the Civitas think tank in 2009, which tried to look behind the secrets of academies’ success. It asked the question which I think anyone should ask if confronted with statistics showing rapid improvements: how were they being achieved? It offers substantial evidence of what it says are some of the approaches within academies, of pupils being pushed towards “less challenging” [Civitas’s words] subjects and qualifications “to drive up headline results”. So this investigation, asking if there was a specific “academies effect” at play behind their generally improved headline results – ie searching for reasons behind it rather than the often-cited but too vague “sponsors’ ethos” claims – was available to Mr Gove but I know of no detailed reaction to it.

Now, I thought I’d say here what I think has been going on in academies.Perhaps it would be better to start with a question: if they have lower numbers of pupils taking academic subjects such as history, why is this? Well, I guess there are two responses.

The first is to say that, as mentioned above, the original academies set up under Labour tended to serve – though were not exclusively confined to – disadvantaged communities. All other things being equal, it could be argued that one might expect these schools to struggle to recruit pupils to the traditional academic subjects such as history and languages that Mr Gove now focuses on through the English Baccalaureate.

There is likely to be some truth in this. However, the TES figures suggest that not only do academies have lower results  on the EBacc measure when compared against the national average for all other schools  – driven partly, would be the assumption, by academies’ possibly lower take-up for EBacc subjects – but when compared to schools with similar intakes.

Further, as suggested above, this is not a defence open to Mr Gove if he is truly to be seen as a champion of academic education for the vast majority of pupils. If he really cared about that, he would be speaking out passionately against some of this practice.

To me, a second response suggests itself. It is this: the practice in academies could be seen as a kind of “Education by Numbers” squared, or “Education by Numbers” amplified. There are such large institutional forces on them to raise results on the published indicators that the kind of practices documented would be expected to have occurred, perhaps to a greater degree than elsewhere in the maintained sector, because of results pressures.

Of course, there is no evidence that these approaches, including  pushing pupils away from the academic subjects now included in the Ebacc towards those which have up to now carried high weight in league table calculations, were and are going on in all academies. But I do think there is likely to have been this general tendency, based on a few facts about academies, which run as follows.

Academies were usually set up, under Labour, in response to perceived problems of low attainment: the results of the schools they replaced were said not to be good enough. I have observed, for example, how raw exam statistics, in relation to some schools, were virtually the only evidence put forward as the rationale for the extensive restructuring and investment that comes with setting up an academy.

In this context, almost the raison d’etre of these new schools was to improve headline GCSE statistics. If they didn’t do so, one could ask why the change to academy status, which was often controversial and which had been backed with often tens of millions of pounds of investment in new buildings for individual schools, had come about. I suspect, also, though have never seen evidence other than a reference to the odd “performance related bonus” in a job adverts, that academy leaders have had performance pay tied to raising published exam numbers.

The published results are not just high-stakes locally for individual schools, of course. They are also important for academy chains, whose reputations – in a system which really does not look very hard for alternative evidence – rest on them.

And politically, at a national level, of course, the success or failure of the academies scheme was seen to be judged almost exclusively on whether one or at most two numbers rose: the central indicator of the proportion of pupils achieving five or more GCSEs or vocational equivalent at A*-C including English and maths, and arguably the old measure without the English and maths stipulation.

In this kind of atmosphere, academies will have been under even more pressure, I believe, to game the system in obvious ways – such as a very sharp focus on C/D borderline pupils and use of alternative qualifications – in order to deliver those results, against the context of them being demanded quickly from, often, very challenging pupil cohorts.*

But the impact on individual pupils in the chase for better results – in terms of denying them precisely the kind of curriculum Mr Gove claims now to want for all schools – can be large.

I should say here – and some will no doubt challenge this – that I don’t want to criticise non-GCSE qualifications. The idea that schools, pupils and parents should be free to choose the courses they think are right for the pupil, with a full understanding of the likely benefits to the individual in the long-run, is powerful. My concern is that our current system, including the lack of scrutiny of what has been going on beyond statistics which have placed a surely-too-high weight on some non-academic courses, has pushed schools to take decisions based on the worth of a course to the institution, rather than to the individual.

It was revealing, I think, that in a recent exchange I had on twitter on this subject with Sam Freedman, Mr Gove’s adviser, Sam predicted that academies’ results would improve quickly on the Ebacc indicator now that it has been introduced. But this only seemed to confirm, in my mind, that academies have been exceptionally focused on league table ranking metrics, ie on the results for the institution. Mr Freedman may suggest that this is OK, now, since this government has sorted things out so that the metrics are now better aligned with pupils’ interests. I think that is a very optimistic reading. It also implies a lack of interest in what has happened under the old system which, if you follow Mr Gove’s logic, has resulted in disadvantaged pupils being wrongly pushed towards courses which were not in their long-term interests.

In investigating school results and the impact of non-GCSE qualifications on league table rankings, I have been in contact for several years now with Roger Titcombe, the former head of a community comprehensive whose school eventually was turned into an academy.

Roger’s argument throughout was that he passionately believed in what he saw as an important strand of the comprehensive ideal. This was the right of all pupils – from whatever background – to pursue a broad liberal education, in which all would have access to a range of academic subjects.

He saw that as coming under threat from the academies movement, because these new schools were so desperate for better results, some would sacrifice that ideal by pushing children towards qualifications mainly because they would help the school’s data.

Not just through academies, but throughout the schools system, a new class divide was at risk of emerging, he thought, with those from better-off families concentrating on academic courses and the rest pushed towards non-GCSEs in their options. But he believed, and the evidence presented above would suggest, that there is an “academies effect”, which makes them particularly susceptible to the type of behaviour described here.

I think, actually, that Roger’s ideals in this respect are very similar to those put forward by Mr Gove. However, in the absence of any other explanation, it seems the Education Secretary’s desire never to be seen to criticise the actions of academies overwhelms his stated commitment to speaking out for the options of those from disadvantaged backgrounds. Ideology, then, in this new government, is king.

* Remember, also, that no school can have complete control over the results a child achieves after sitting at a desk to complete exam papers, so institutions under pressure seem to me to be particularly incentivised to go in for strategic approaches that afford them greater control.

4 Comments

  1. Having worked in an Academy (in fact one of the first), we made the decision to have pathways for students. With good guidance students could choose which pathway they wanted to study. One academic, one a mixture of academic and vocational and one purely vocational for those who wanted to study for a skilled trade. Whatever the pathway all students studied, approx 78% of their curriculum time was core and identical. We never made all students study a BTEC and was probably the reason that we didn’t make as fast progress as some of the others.
    The result of this was London Challenge, floor level issues, threats of removal of SLT, restructures etc etc. For educational reasons we stuck to our principals and we moved started to make good progress with our students. More went on to sixthform and A’levels, than had ever done in the local area, and we had our first applicants to Oxbridge. However, we were a non-selective in a selective Borough. Where we were getting 60%+ 5A* to C and 40%+ inc, Harris moved in locally and instantly moved that school to 90%+ 5A* to C (although the same inc). Once again we had DoE focus, London Challenge, threats of losing our jobs and a restructure. Luckily at this point I managed to move schools.
    The point of this story? I am not sure but to tell you how it works inside a school where you are under threat of sacking, or academy orders, or are swamped by consultants or Borough advisors, with the knowledge that it all can be changed by one set of exam results.
    Whatever the measure schools will do whatever they can to improve the results. So the impact of the EBacc will be a narrowing of the curriculum, with many academic GCSE subjects pushed out (Art, Music, RE, Sociology, Psychology, Business Studies, ICT, PE (yes look a PE syllabus to see the depth of study), Graphic Design, Technology etc etc). There will be lots of students whose curricula will be reduced so that they can have increased time in the EBacc subjects. English Literature will suffer as schools use the English curricula time wholly for English Language. I covered this is full here http://kalinski1970.wordpress.com/2011/01/04/more-on-the-madness-of-king-goves-english-baccalaureate/ and here http://kalinski1970.wordpress.com/2011/01/05/additional-clarification-on-the-madness-of-%E2%80%98king-gove%E2%80%99s-english-baccalaureate/)
    The advisor that you speak about will say that school’s are ‘free’ to chose the curriculum and that the EBacc measure is not a target and therefore it is the individual school’s fault and not the Government’s. But history of league tables tell us that create a measure to judge and we will all focus on achieving the best we can in that measure, sometimes to the detriment of the students. Sadly, this will be a case of history repeating itself.

  2. I may be cynical but Gove wants all schools to convert to academies. If he is seen to give them a hard time, maybe Governing bodies will be less willing to change status. At the moment we are supposed to think that changing status to an academy will solve all our problems. If the government indicates that academies also fail on their new measures of success, then that becomes a hard message to deliver and also calls into question the very success measure schools are being bashed with.

  3. How can you publish results for a measure that had not even been introduced to schools at the time? To criticise academies or any school at all because of their English Bacc results is ridiculous. Schools have to come to terms with various ways of measuring success and as in any other walk of life have acted accordingly. In anyother area would you be measured on success criteria that you weren’t aware you were being assessed on?

  4. The claim that academies are a success because they are improving faster than other schools is a misleading one because schools convert when their results are low and so have lots of room for improvement. The proper test is whether academies are improving faster than other schools with similarly low starting points that didn’t become academies.

    In 2007 there were 22 academies in the bottom 10% of schools for 5A*-C inc EM. By 2010 their mean improvement was 17%, while that of non-academies in the group was 16%. Despite additional resources and support, academy performance was almost identical to that of other schools.

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