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23 March 2012

Right to reply: in defence of academies

Academies are transforming education in the most deprived communities.

By jonathan Hill

It’s a shame that Mehdi Hasan didn’t come to my department to check the figures he used in his academies article (playground tactics?). He is entitled to his opinion but we could have helped him make his piece factually correct.

For a start his description of academy funding is incorrect. Per-pupil funding for academies is based on exactly the same formula as other local schools. The difference is that all the money intended for the schools goes straight to it rather than a percentage – which varies enormously – being held back by the local authority. They can then use that money to buy services from the local authority or from another provider if that offers better value for money.

He then misrepresented the situation in Haringey. I think we need to be honest about standards at Downhills School. Their results have been below the national floor standards for four out of the last five years. The school had a notice to improve from Ofsted and was then placed in special measures after their last inspection. An Ofsted inspection carried out last month found it was “failing to give its pupils an acceptable standard of education and the persons responsible for leading, managing or governing the school are not demonstrating the capacity to secure the necessary improvement”.

How has Hasan, who believes in social justice, found himself on the side of people defending failure for the most deprived communities?

He is also wrong with regards to teachers’ pay and exam results. Contrary to what he says, teachers pay is not lower in academies. Big academy chains are doing incredible work to provide extra training and professional development to their staff. If he had spoken to academies and their teachers, he would have heard a different story.

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He has used flimsy data to attack academy results. Based on the latest data available, the free school meal pupils attending academies are improving faster than similar pupils in all other schools. This bears repeating – children from the poorest families are doing better in academies. Isn’t that a cause for celebration? It is also a fact that as academies become more established they move to more academic subjects. And, of course, many students have already taken their GCSE options before their schools become an academy, so the longer term trend presents a more complete picture.

He quotes figures supposedly showing a supposed lack of public support for academies as an abstract concept. But in the real world, pupils and their parents are voting with their feet.

At Mossbourne Academy, whose predecessor was described as the “worst school in Britain” a total of 1,587 children have applied for 200 places this year.

Academies run by Ark have seen a huge rise in applications, with six children applying for each place at Ark Academy in Wembley. The Harris Academies chain had four applications for every place across all of their schools – schools which had been undersubscribed before becoming academies. Parents want their children to attend academies.

Of course, no anti-academy article would be complete without some choice use of exclusion data. The most recent DfE figures, published last month, comparing academies against a control group other schools with very similar pupils showed just 0.25 per cent difference in their exclusion rates – a quarter of one percent. 29 of the academies had no exclusions, compared to 32 of the comparison group. I struggle to see the scandal here. The National Audit Office and PWC both found no evidence that academy admissions and exclusions were having a negative impact on neighbouring schools; in fact the NAO said that academies were the schools most likely to be serving their local communities.

Last year researchers at the LSE found that academies improve faster than comparator schools even when controlling for pupil intake and the use of GCSE ‘equivalent’ qualifications. They also said that academies helped raise standards in local schools. Perhaps that’s why, again contrary to Mehdi’s claims, parents are queuing up to send their children to academies.

Jonathan Hill is the under-secretary of state for schools.

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