Academies are part of the UK Government’s attempts to raise standards of educational attainment in areas where levels of educational attainment have been poor and educational aspirations, low.
Academies can be seen as part of the Government’s attempts at promoting social justice in some of the most deprived neighbourhoods in the country.
Academies are also high profile.
Consider the Nottingham Academy , the largest school in Europe which opened its doors in September of 2009 accommodating its 3600 pupils on three campuses. Sponsored by the Greenwood Dale Foundation Trust, it replaces 3 schools, one, Elliot Durham a comprehensive school which was badly underperforming in terms of the percentage of pupils gaining 5 A*-C grades at GCSE. One of the other schools it replaces is Greenwood Dale (the sponsoring school), it had dramatically improved its GCSE grades but was, unsurprisingly over subscribed. The hope is that the success of Greenwood Dale can be applied to this new school, and that by launching as a ‘new’ school with a smart new Uniform and name, the baggage of the old failing school can be ditched at the same time.
Academies are however not without controversy. They can and have been sponsored by charities, the co-operative movement, other schools, Universities, and by businesses.
Consider the Kings Academy in Middlesbrough, it is sponsored by the Vardy Foundation, associated with Sir Peter Vardy, a well known Christian who subscribes to creationism. Academies have therefore attracted criticism because business involvement is thought to represent a ‘mortgaging’ of our educational future. Additionally, in the case of the schools sponsored by the Vardy foundation, their involvement has led to concern over the inclusion of creationism in the school’s curriculum (see the Guardian on this). This concern goes wider than the way science may be taught in schools sponsored by the Vardy Foundation, but goes to the heart of the involvement of businesses in education.
Yet, despite the criticisms the Department for Children Schools and Families (DCSF) is keen to demonstrate the success of Academies. According to the DCSF they are often oversubscribed and GCSE attainment in Academies is rising at a faster rate than in other schools. This appears to vindicate any criticism of Academies.
Except, it is not that simple.
Academies may be engaged in a process of ‘gaming’. Gaming is a concept which refers to the way in which players (Schools or Academies) make rational decisions which bring them advantage. In other words, they play a game to win. A report published today by Civitas suggests that the apparent success of Academies in raising standards may be the result of practices may be pushing some pupils into vocational courses in order to raise the percentage of GCSEs attained at A*-C. This could be described as gaming.
In its blog Civitas asks if the success of Academies is a sham. The problem is, that while most Principals surveyed felt that their Academies were doing well or very well, detailed breakdown of the attainment is not available (Academies are exempted from the Freedom of Information Act) and just over half of the Principals felt that Academies should have to break down their results by subject, as do other state schools?
It is suggested by the Civitas Research that much of the apparent improved pass rate at GCSE is accounted for by qualifications considered ‘equivalent’. As today’s Guardian reports some of these qualifications have been described by Ofsted as being of “doubtful value”.
Civitas suggests that the gaming which may be happening is “impoverishing the curriculum of the already deprived” given that Academies are targeted in deprived communities with the aim of raising educational standards and aspirations.
The problem is we do not know how much ‘gaming’ is going on, however in an A*-C economy where vocational qualifications are regarded as GCSE equivalent it is hardly surprising that Academies promote this route for those pupils who they consider are not going to succeed with conventional GCSEs.