NASUWT on the importance of Local Schools

This week NASUWT published the results of a survey, commissioned last year, seeking parents’ views of schools and colleges.   Alongside views of education the results reveal the most and least important factors that parents consider when choosing a school or college for their child, as well as the strategies they have used to inform their decision making. The following table reveals the responses to the question:

Which, if any, are the most important factors when choosing your child’s school/college?

(Comres, 2015: 7)
(Comres, 2015: 7)

In reporting these results NASUWT has highlighted location (referring to the school’s proximity to the family home, or parent’s workplace) as the most popular factor to be identified as important by parents.  In contrast, league table position is highlighted as being considered as important by only 21% of parents surveyed.   Clearly, in publishing these survey responses NASUWT are trying to challenge the importance that UK Government discourses place on quantitative measures of school ‘performance’.  The message  given is that parents believe other things are more important when considering the future education of their children and the Government should, therefore, focus on providing more ‘good’ local schools and focusing less on league tables:

“It remains the case that for the majority of parents the locality of a school is a key factor, supporting the NASUWT’s long-argued view that what every parent wants is access to a good local school.”

Aside from what is mean by a “good school”, while it may not appear a surprising result, the identification of locality may be more complex.  As Burgess et al (2014) discuss, while location may be an important factor in school choice decision making, this factor is itself influenced by the context in which the parents are identifying that location as an important factor.

“household location is a choice and may be endogenously affected by demand for high-quality schools. Suppose a family had moved to an area with good academic schools for this reason. This would give undue weight to proximity to the school in estimation, so the true preference for academic quality would appear as a preference for proximity.” (Burgess, et al, 2014: 7-8)

Location is clearly important, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that parents view academic performance as any less important, even though they may appear to do so when asked this question in a survey.  As Ball and Vincent (1998) observe, the school choice process may be a long term project, particularly for middle-class parents, which takes several years.  So, in the example from Burgess et al (2014) parents who may have moved house in order to be in proximity to what they view as a ‘good’ school would have done this because of the importance they place on academic standards.  However, they may well identify proximity as the most important factor if asked about choosing a school for their child.

When asked about strategies employed in school-choice decision making, 29% of parents reported they had checked school performance data tables, which is slightly higher, but not inconsistent with the percentage identifying this as an important factor in decision making.  School Performance Tables are provided by the  Department of Education and this facility allows anyone who is interested to view a range of selected data on schools and to compare this ‘performance’ with other schools. Presumably, if the statistics from the NASUWT survey are representative, around a third of parents are using this tool in their school choice decision making, meaning most parents, around two thirds, are not. Again, the results from this survey are far from nuanced.  As Ball and Vincent (1998) revealed in their study, school-choice decision making is a complex process and the importance placed on ‘cold’ knowledge, such as performance data is shaped by a range of factors, such as social class and gender.  The NASUWT survey  makes a valid point in highlighting that relatively few parents consult this kind of data when choosing a school or college for their child, but more information is needed.  An interesting question remains: what type of parent believes performance tables are an important factor in school-choice decision making and how do they interpret this data?  Or: Are some groups of parents being super-served via school performance tables

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The Cost of Improving Discipline

In a survey of parents carried out for the Times Educational Supplement (TES), almost half  backed a return to the use of corporal punishment in schools.  What is understood as corporal punishment however, is not immediately obvious.  While 49% of parents supported a return to corporal punishment, this figure dropped to 40% when asked specifically about smacking or caning.  Presumably, some methods of assaulting children are considered more acceptable than others.

Alternative forms of discipline, which don’t involve physical assault were more popular still (such as detentions, and  exclusions), with 77% of parents supporting ‘writing lines’ as a punishment.

These findings are likely to be used by the current Government as justification for strengthening the discipline powers available to teachers in schools.  It is fair to say that the current Department for Education are keen on discipline.  In the last few months the DFE has issued new advice on the Screening, searching and confiscation of pupils, advice on the Use of reasonable force, as well as a Guide for heads and school staff on behaviour and discipline.

Such advice is likely to appeal to popular concerns over behaviour and discipline in schools where there is a perception that schools throughout the land are populated by badly behaved children, and, where it is perceived staff and governors are powerless to act.

The Education Bill, currently proceeding through Parliament is intended to be a part of the solution.  It gives head teachers and schools new powers, or freedoms, regarding discipline.

Schools will no longer be required to give written notice to parents, of a detention outside of school hours.  In other words, schools have the power to control the whereabouts of a pupil who has misbehaved, after school has finished. This will appear as common sense to those who believe in tougher discipline, but the consequences of such action are potentially serious.  For some pupils, remaining at school for a detention may amount to little more than an inconvenience.  For some, the impact is likely to be significant, for example, those who rely on public transport, or those who are carers.  It short, it will hit the poor and vulnerable most.

There is a clear ideology behind this policy shift.   As Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove said at the Durand Academy:

“The right every child deserves to be taught properly is currently undermined by the twisting of rights by a minority who need to be taught an unambiguous lesson in who’s boss.”

Improved discipline is just as much about learning your place, as it is about tackling inappropriate behaviour.

Exclusion appeal panels will be replaced with review panels.  Unlike appeal panels, review panels will not have the power to force a school to reinstate an excluded pupil, though they can recommend that a school reconsider its decision.  This gives autonomy to the school, but, a review panel cannot hold a school to account.  Mistakes are made, and, in these cases children may not be readmitted.  This goes against notions of natural justice and in inequitable.  Children may not appeal against a decision to exclude them, but no doubt a teacher retains the right to appeal against dismissal. Again, it is about showing unruly children who is boss.

For schools, this apparent new freedom to impose discipline may not be that free after all.  The DfE is running a pilot on a new approach to tackling permanent exclusions.  In this pilot schools will be responsible for funding alternative provision for those pupils they permanently exclude.  Further, the performance of those excluded pupils will be recorded in the performance tables of the excluding school.  So, there will be consequences for the school, even after the school has exercised its freedom in excluding a pupil.

Pupils who are permanently excluded are often educated in a Pupil Referral Unit, where the cost of education is approximately four times that of mainstream provision[1]. Greater freedoms to exclude, maybe, but this also seems like a  greater disincentive to exclude.

While a decision to exclude should be a last resort, there may be serious consequences for other pupils and teachers of retaining a disruptive pupil who would be best served with alternative provision.

By shifting responsibility on to schools, in the name of autonomy and freedom, you shift the cost, and the responsibility.  While the promises of improved behaviour in schools appeals to populist concerns, what is of greater concern is the ideology revealed by these promises.

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The “half-baked” English Baccalaureate

This week, the Government published its secondary school performance tables and school spend data.  These performance tables include a new English Baccalaureate indicator.  This measures the percentage of pupils who have attained an A*-C at GCSE (or IGCSE) in English, Mathematics, Sciences, an Ancient or Modern Language, and History or Geography.  The statistics show that overall, in England 15.6% of pupils achieved the English Baccalaureate.

The data revealed this week also shows that 216 schools failed to meet a target of 35% of pupils achieving 5  GCSEs A*-C, including English and Mathematics.  These schools face the possibility of being taken over by a more ‘successful’ headteacher.

Newspapers have covered the release of the data. The Guardian ran with a story about the 200 plus schools failing to meet the GCSE targets, but also ran a story about the low levels of pupils achieving the English Baccalaureate. The Independent also ran a piece about pupils and schools missing targets.

My favourite headline and story came from the The Telegraph.  It read:

“GCSE league tables: private schools attack ‘half-baked’ rankings”

The article went on to describe how several leading English public schools, such as Eton and Harrow have ranked lower “than some of England’s worst-performing comprehensives”.  Representatives of private schools are, predictably, not happy.

My immediate, emotional response was:

“They should learn to take the rough with the smooth”

My nuanced, sociologically refined response is not a lot different.  Here is why:

The basis of the private schools’ objection is a technicality.  The Mathematics IGCSE which some private schools opted for, was not accredited in time to be included in this years’ rankings.  Had the figure for the pass rate of this exam been included, the rankings may have looked different.

However, their complaint about the unjust nature of this implies an expectation that school performance tables are a true and accurate representation of school performance, that they enable direct comparisons to be made between schools, and, that, until now, league tables have been accurate, fair, and representative.

This belief comes from a faith in statistics as an objective measure of an objective reality.    The problem is, the statistics from which performance tables are derived do not accurately represent reality.

The objections to league tables are well rehearsed.  Schools have different pupil populations with diverse social backgrounds.  As Bethan Marshall (2003: 35) says about the ‘failing’ Hammersmith County School which replace by the Phoenix School, with a new ‘super head’:

“To compare the results of this school with those of the London Oratory where over 90% of the boys achieved 5 A*-C grades at GCSE, as the very form of the league tables suggest we must, was and is a nonsense”

I doubt very much that Eton and Harrow will suffer now that they have decided league tables aren’t what they claim to be.

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Michael Gove introduces the Schools White Paper

The Department for Education has appropriated a range of technologies to get its message across, following on from the previous Labour administration, the Department for Education has a YouTube site.  Its visual appearance is somewhat more sombre than that of it’s predecessor, the DCSF. Perhaps this indicates a greater emphasis on substance, rather than style. Or, perhaps, that is what we are supposed to think.

With the launch of the Schools White Paper, comes Michael Gove appearing on video introducing it. You can watch the video here.  It leaves you in no doubt as to what the key themes of the Schools White Paper are.

The White Paper is, as Gove tells us, called The Importance of Teaching

Firstly, this refers to the quality of teachers.   The Government is committed to raising the prestige of teachers.  That sounds unproblematic, on the face of it.   Note, however, the emphasis on the quality of teachers, not teaching. The White Paper invites us to believe that improvements in schools will be as a result of good quality teachers.   Presumably that implies that good quality teachers practice good quality teaching.  But this is not merely a semantic point. Good quality teachers will be identified through their degree classification.  Graduates will require at least a 2:2  in order to receive government funding for initial teacher training.  This might not appear to be a bad thing, after all, we want teachers who know their subject and can demonstrate this at degree level.  However, it does suggest that the qualities that are required to become a good teacher, exist, and are fixed before initial teacher training takes place.  In reality, given the popularity of many PGCE programmes, this level of selection is likely to have being taking place for some time. However, as a result of these proposals, providers of post-graduate teacher training programmes will now no longer be able to provide a place to a potentially excellent teacher who has less than a 2:2.

Secondly, there is the power that is to be given to teachers.    Again, this sounds unproblematic.  Teachers will be able “to take control of the learning that goes on” and will be given “new powers to take control of order and discipline in the classroom”.  If teachers are important, this sounds reasonable, let them get on with teaching, and, while they are at it they can get on with disciplining children.  How very generous of the Government to give teachers power.   So, let us problematise this. Can power be ‘given’ to teachers in this sense?  I doubt it.  Unless the Government genuinely sees that it has nothing to do with education, and will disband the DfE, and never again propose education policies,  it still has power, and it can just as easily take back this so called power that it is giving teachers. 

Alongside this new power, is freedom.  As the webpage for the Schools White Paper states, schools are to be  “freed from the constraints of central Government direction“.  The Schools White Paper, presumably, should not be seen as an example of  that “central Government direction”.   

So, there it is, teachers have power, and schools have freedoms, and, there is no “central Government direction”.  Except that “central Government” is pressing for the teaching of synthetic phonics, and the introduction of the English Baccalaureate.  Testing remains, with a new “age six reading check”  to be introduced, inspections remain, and minimum “floor standards” will be imposed on schools. The curriculum is to be reformed, with a focus on “essential knowledge”.  We can accept that teachers have new powers, and schools have freedoms, however, they have these as long as they implement this Government’s policy

A “radical overhaul of school league tables”?

This is how Anushka Asthana and Toby Helm, in the Guardian described the new coalition’s plans for school league tables.  In fact, it appears to be not so radical. 

League tables, providing statistical information on the ‘performance’ of pupils are published by the government’s education department (as in the illustration below), and reproduced in national newspapers. 

On the face of it, they provide robust, statistical information about the performance of a school.  Though deciphering the information will not be straightforward for everyone, the figures show what percentage of pupils attained a specified level.  It appears objective, scientific, unbiased.  However, the problem with these tables is that they only provide a partial picture; there is a lack of information on the social context  of the school, and, although there is now a contextual value added measure, there is little information on the attainment of pupils on entry to that key stage.  So, in short they do not compare like with like, and, are biased.

League tables were introduced to give parents information about schools in their areas.  They could use this information to make informed decisions about selecting the most appropriate school for their child.  Parents, thus became consumers in the education market place.  Further, it should be noted that this development was not introduced by the previous Labour administration, but by the previous Conservative government.  In particular, it was the 1988 Education Act which ushered in many changes which have resulted in the intensification of the education marketplace.

Now, we have the ConDem government intent on changing the league table system.  Plans, however, are at the ‘suggestion’ stage.   One suggestion, not a definite, is to group schools according to their socio-economic context.  So, schools in poor areas will be grouped with other poor schools. 

Is this radical?


  • There is nothing new in benchmarking schools, (or other public services for that matter), alongside other schools with a similar social context.
  • Benchmarking alongside schools with a similar proportion of pupils eligible for free school meals has been used to compare the ‘performance’ of schools.  There are, however problems with FSM data as it is only a ‘proxy’ for deprivation)
  • The last government also introduced a value added measure to take account of the intake of pupils

Is this suggestion a good idea?

It depends on the motivation of the government

  • The claims that the current government makes for achieving social justice through education reforms ring hollow.  Proposals for more academies, and for free schools are not about achieving social justice, but are about withdrawal of the state from the provision of education. Academies and Free Schools will be outside of LEA control, and so, in control of their own admissions.  League tables comparing ‘like with like’  are, more likely to mean one set of tables for ‘good’ schools, and another for ‘poorer’, underfunded, LEA schools.
  • Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg claims that this move will provide a more “honest picture” of schools’ performance. Again, it is possible to debate the level of honesty that statistical information can provide about any school.  However, any picture, honest or not, it is the impact that this change will have on the consumers of league tables, and the consequences that is important. So…

What are the consequences?

In short, inequality

  •  For parents, it depends on their social class, whether and how they use this information.  As Bowe et al[1] observe, it is too simplistic to assume that parents make school choice decisions on the basis of school performance data alone.
  •  Just as important in school choice decision-making are social networks.  See the research carried out by Ball and Vincent[2].
  • Crucially, Ball and Vincent found that, for working class parents, school choice was not an anxious process, largely because choices are limited, often attend the local school.  It is these parents who are unlikely to be pouring over any form of league table.
  • For those (mainly middle class) parents who do use league tables as part of their decision-making process, this change will simply remove from analysis, those schools which they would not wish to consider for their child (the ‘poor’ performing schools, the ones at the bottom of the league tables).  There will be a middle class league table, and one for the rest.
  • The educational market place will intensify, a greater disparity between schools ‘freed’ from LEA control; academies, and free schools and the remaining state schools will be evident. Greater social inequality is likely to result. 

Continue reading “A “radical overhaul of school league tables”?”

Francis Beckett – The Great City Academy Fraud

You expect Beckett to provide a critical analysis of education policy, and this is what he does in The Great City Academy Fraud.  It is a critique of Labour’s Academy programme, examining the reality behind the spin.  While some of the arguments against Acadmies and their performance might be found elsewhere, this is a useful source which tells the stories of some Acadmies, and, it gives us a glimpse of how schools might look in the future with more involvement from businesses.

This book is not new, having being published in 2007.  Since then, of course, there has been a General Election. Labour, who were responsible for City Academies are no longer in power.  However, Beckett’s analysis of City Academies remains an important contribution to debates on school provision, especially so in the context of the Conservatives’ proposed Free Schools.

Academies were introduced by the last Labour Government as a part of their committment to improve educational standards.  Designed to replace ‘failing’ schools, particularly in deprived inner city areas, Academies would be sponsored, by businesses, faith groups, individuals, or charities.  These sponsors were expected to contribute £2 million to the cost of setting up an Academy, estimated at £10 million.  Academies would be outside of the control of LEAs, with running costs payed by the Government.

The book begins by comparing Academies with City Technology Colleges (CTCs).   These were created  by the last Conservative Government in the 1980’s.  They were to be sponsored by and owned by businesses or churches and were to be independent from LEAs.  As they were targeted in deprived urban areas, they were, in particular to be independent from Labour controlled councils.   CTCs were not a success, there was limited interest from any big sponsors, and money was often not forthcoming from those sponsors who did get involved.  In order to prop up the policy, the state then had to fund the CTCs, which had not been the attention.  Additionally, CTCs were more generously funded than other state schools.  The policy was quietly dropped.

At the time, Labour did not support CTCs, promising to take them back into LEA control if they got into power. They did, of course, get into power, in 1997.   However,  in 2000 the Labour Government announced the City Academy programme. 

Beckett sees little distinction between CTCs and Academies.  The mistakes of the CTCs, he claims, were destined to be repeated, the lessons of the failed CTCs not learned.

While Academies were designed to replace ‘failing’ schools, Beckett argues that many schools which were closed, were not, in fact, failing schools, at least by the assessment of Ofsted.  Beckett takes apart the political claims for Academies.  In terms of private sponsorship, only small proportions of the escalating costs of Academies has come from sponsors, and some sponsorship is ‘in kind’, yet the so-called sponsors still own and control the schools while the state continues to fund them.  Then there has been allegations of honours in exchange for so-called sponsorship.  He discusses concerns over the involvement of and motivation of religious organisations.  Unions have been sidelined and timetables changed, with the effect that pupils and teachers don’t get to interact outside the classroom. The buildings too come under scrutiny as not being fit for purpose.  All of this could be overlooked, perhaps, if Academies were shown to work.  Beckett however shows that this has not always been the case, some of the schools they replaced were not failing anyway, and in some Academies attainment has fallen, while others have received damning Ofsted reports.  Where attainment has risen, it is alleged that this is because Acadmies are using GCSE equivalents to ensure they rise in the league tables.  Yet, they have continued to receive generous state funding; if these had been ordinary state comprehensive schools, they would have been closed, and replaced by Academies, according to Beckett.

Beckett’s analysis does have implications for the Conservative’s Free Schools.  These can be started by parents, but in reality are likely to be run by businesses or other organisations.  If they are to be a flagship education policy of the current Government then the pattern from the Academies is likely to be repeated.  They will require generous funding from the Government at the expense of other local state schools.  The businesses, religious organisations or charities which are contracted to run them will have great control over what goes on inside them (not the parents, despite the Conservative promises) yet there will be very little accountability.  The result will be, as Beckett has claimed to have been the case with Acadmies, will be increased educational inequality.

The Great City Academy Fraud is published by Continuum.

League tables

School League tables based on the GCSE results of pupils were published this week.

The Department for Children Schools and Families hailed the results as a sign of continuing success.  The Schools’ Minister Vernon Coaker pointed to the increased proportion of pupils gaining 5 or more A*-C at GCSE, with a higher percentage of pupils gaining good grades at GCSE in English and Mathematics.  London was identified as the region of top performing schools, a dramatic improvement on GCSE results since 1997.

The Government also pointed to the reduction of the number of  schools designated as ‘National Challenge’ – this is where GCSE passes have been typically low, with schools challenged to improve their results. 

The Government also claimed that Academies have demonstrated that they are successfully reversing low levels of attainment in neighbourhoods they serve.

So, the Government have used the latest statistics to demonstrate that their education policies have been successful. 

However there is another side to this apparent success story. The Guardian reported that a 10th of schools had failed to meet GCSE targets and claimed that Academies, while being hailed as key to raising stands make up a significant proportion of ‘National Challenge’ schools.

A form of ‘value added’ which measures the progress a child has made between the ages of 11 and 16 has been introduced this year, this indicates that over half of state schools are failing to meet expected levels of progress.

Interestingly however, it is the schools in the most deprived areas that have improved the most.  As sociologists of education will observe it is such schools that are most likely to struggle, with the social class of their intake impacting of educational attainment.  While these results do not prove that social class no longer influences educational attainment it indicates that policy interventions may lead to improvements in some areas.  Funding has been targeted in these areas, and rightly so, given the consistent evidence for low levels of attainment in these areas.

Now the Lib Dems have criticised the Government for failing to provide the same amount of targeted intervention in ordinary towns, with schools in this area demonstrating less improvement, with some schools struggling to meet targets.

It is almost as if the Labour Government has become a victim of its own success.

At the bottom of the scale, the number of schools where a large number of pupils are leaving without 5 good GCSE’s is increasing.  This indicates a polarisation of attainment – with more pupils gaining more good GCSEs while at the same time more pupils with few qualifications.  An added problem is that these pupils are likely to be concentrated in these so called ‘failing schools’ which then struggle to improve, because their levels of attainment are largely shaped by their intake. 

Perhaps to put the criticism into context we should take note of what Vernon Coaker has to say:

“A decade ago, just 35% of children left school with five good GCSEs including English and maths, now with our best results ever it’s 49.8% for all schools. In fact, the average school performance in 1997 is now roughly where we put the absolute bottom benchmark expected. This hasn’t happened by chance.”

Middle class parents and prejudice against comprehensive schools

Professor David Woods, the Chief Adviser for London Schools this week criticised a number of middle class parents for their reluctance, often refusal to send their children to local comprehensives.

In London, the area his role is focused on, the problem of middle class parents abandoning the local comprehensive school is greater than in other parts of the country.

In the Guardian article which reports Woods’ concerns it is stated:

In London, the proportion of parents choosing private schools is higher than in the rest of the country, with 9% of 15-year-olds attending private schools. Across England, the number of 10-year-olds who attend state primary schools and transfer to a private secondary school is 2.3%, while in London it is 3.7%

Why are these parents abandoning the local comp?

Comprehensive Schools do not get a good press, especially in the Daily Mail as indicated by these headlines:

State pupils can be uncontrollable and are unlikely to achieve academically, says private schools chief

State pupils ‘miss out on university because of bad teaching, not bias’

These kind of headlines must contribute to and reinforce parents’ fears about the local comp.

In drama too, comprehensive schools just don’t appear to be very attractive.  Remember Grange Hill from the BBC?  According to the Daily Mail, again, it was cut because real comprehensives are worse than the fiction portrayed in that drama series.

Today we have Waterloo Road which as has been described elsewhere on this blog isn’t exactly attractive to middle class parents wanting the best educational experience and outcomes for their children.

Sociologists of education have studied the behaviour of middle class parents in the education market place that was created by the 1988 Education Act.  Most notably there is Stephen Ball.  Middle class parents employ strategies to get their children into the school of their choice, this can range from moving house to a different catchment area to secure a place at a more desireable school.  It can mean immersing themselves into the life of the local church in order to get their child into a church school.  Sociologists often refer to the ways in which middle class parents are able to use their cultural capital (see Bourdieu for more) in order to secure advantage in the education market.

The education system itself does little to discourage the use of cultural capital by parents, following the 1988 Education Act we have a quasi education market in which parents have (in theory) a choice over which school to send their child too, supported by a range of different school types, including comprehensive schools, grammar schools, specialist schools and academies.  For those who want out of the state system and can afford it there are private schools.  Choice may appear to be democratic, expect that some parents are better able to exercise a choice and get what they want than others are.  The result is that there are class advantages to be seen in education.  Those whose parents have little cultural capital and who can’t afford to move to ‘better’ catchment area have little choice to go to the apparently failing local comprehensive school.  Though in reality the local comp may not actually be failing, standards may be rising, and as educational attainment is related to social class, those who are in the ‘failing’ schools are more likely to be working class pupils who traditionally achieve lower grades than their middle class counterparts – this may go someway to explaining why ‘standards’ may appear to be low in these schools.

Professor Woods is right, however when education has become a commodity it is hardly surprising that parents will employ whatever they can to get their child into the school of their choice, even if that child would do equally as well at the local comp.

Continue reading “Middle class parents and prejudice against comprehensive schools”

Academies: Gaming attainment targets?

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.

Secondary School Admissions

The publication this week, Secondary school admissions in England: Admission Forums, local authorities and schools by the LSE has brought into question the fairness of school admissions.  The report, written by  Philip Noden and Anne West from the LSE’s Education Research Group is actually the 2nd of two reports  undertaken on behalf of Research and Information on State Education (RISE) looking at school admissions.  While this latest report examines the role of Local Education Authorities and, importantly the role of  School Admissions Forums  (bodies set up to advise LEAs on school admission arrangements taking a particular interest in looked after children and pupils with special educational needs ) it is the non compliance of some schools with admissions code that has captured the attention of recent news reports. 

Headlines have included Schools ‘trying to steal pupils’  from the BBC, and from the Guardian; Schools use dirty tricks to attract best pupils. These dramatic headlines refer to some of the practices reported by the LSE researchers.  These included a school which altered its admission policy with the effect that children living on a social housing estate now had a much reduced chance of being admitted to the secondary school whose catchment area previously included their neighbourhood.  Some schools required parents to complete supplementary information forms, against the Admissions Code. Other schools which were undersubscribed  contacted parents to encourage them to reject their offer from a more popular, oversubscribed school.  In the case of another school it used proximity as a measure on which to allocate offers.  However it did not use the proximity of the child’s address to the school as a criteria which would have been logical. Instead it altered its admissions policy, ranking applicants according to their proximity to a building half a mile away from the school.  Even this admissions policy did not break the Admissions Code and the LEA had not objected to this change in policy.

The findings in the RISE report, aren’t, in fact news, and they are not surprising in the context of a quasi market in education fuelled by the A*-C economy.  In 2004 researchers from, again from the LSE, including Anne West , co-author of the RISE report published research observing the admissions practices of secondary schools in England.  Their analysis revealed that Voluntary Aided and Foundation schools in particular (who have responsibility for their own admissions) adopted criteria which included some groups of pupils while excluding others.  While admissions criteria are designed to do just that the concern is that schools are selecting pupils who are likely to maintain or enhance the school’s rating in league tables, and thus ensuring the school remains a popular choice among potential parents.  In this study, (published in the Oxford Review of Education) West along with fellow researchers Audrey Hind and Hazel Pennell, observed a range of admission criteria, several of which were inconsistent with local Admissions Codes, including some which they termed “idiosyncratic”, “not clear, objective or fair” (p. 359) and  which included, for example admission on the basis of the good conduct of an older sibling.  They concluded that schools which controlled their own admissions criteria were in an advantageous position in the quasi market of education.  This means that these schools in particular are able to cream off the best pupils; often those from middle class backgrounds, while not selecting those from more deprived neighbourhoods and those more likely to be excluded from school.  From a sociological perspective it is possible to see this as an example of the ways in which the education system is implicated in the reproduction of socio-economic inequalities, challenging the common-sense view that education is a route out of poverty.