A guide to the evidence of academies

As the end of 2015 draws nearer, academies remain a constant and hot topic on the education agenda in England. Finding reliable evidence which tells us what these schools have achieved is a major challenge given the plethora of newspaper headlines and extensive media coverage.

Earlier in the year, the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) decided to produce a resource – a guide to the evidence – to help busy senior leaders, governors and classroom teachers access recent evidence on academies’ contribution to educational provision and outcomes. The guide presents the findings from a rapid review of evidence on the performance of academy schools. It is based on 13 key studies which are summarised at the end of the guide. The purpose is to make a contribution to understanding current research on academies with a view to informing the discourse on these schools, identifying gaps in the evidence and drawing conclusions.

Academy performance is complex
It is clear that academy schools are a prominent feature of the educational landscape in England and are going to continue to be. Introduced in 2002, they are funded directly from central government and have become a major policy driver to reform the school system and increase educational attainment. As of 2015, academies account for 60 per cent of secondary schools and 13 per cent of primaries.

So what did our review find? The evidence reveals that the overall picture of academy performance is complex. It is difficult to provide a comprehensive assessment owing to differences between the funding and purpose of early academies (2002‑2009) and later academies established from 2010 onwards, as well as the pupil intakes and profile of converter and sponsored academies. Additionally, the differences between primary and secondary academies and academies in different academy chains add to the complexity.

Consequently, it would be simplistic and misleading to draw firm conclusions and make a singular assessment of academies as a whole. There is no conclusive evidence of the impact of academy status on attainment in primary schools.

There is some evidence that sponsored secondary academies have had a positive effect on pupil performance, as the examples below indicate. Attainment progress between Key Stage 2 and Key Stage 4 outcomes was higher after two years in 2013 compared to similar schools. GCSE results, including for pupils eligible for free school meals and those with special educational needs, improved at a faster rate in 2009-2011 compared with the results in similar schools. On average, academies which had been open the longest had better results. GCSE results of disadvantaged pupils, including English and mathematics, improved in 2011-2013, though there was considerable variation between academy chains.

Furthermore, Ofsted inspection ratings were more likely to increase in schools that became sponsored academies 2002-2009 which corroborated Key Stage 4 performance gains.

There is far less research on the performance of converter academies (created after 2010). There was no significant difference in attainment progress between Key Stage 2 and Key Stage 4 outcomes after two years between converter academies and similar non-academy schools in 2013, although ceiling effects could limit the extent to which differences between these higher performing schools can be observed.

The Impact of academies
None of the studies we reviewed identified a quantitative impact of academies on other local schools. Previous research has found that academies can generate external benefits on neighbouring schools. However, in the studies we looked at, a majority of converter and sponsored academies report that they give support to other schools, and secondary academies, larger academies and converter academies are more likely to do this. Support included joint practice development, running training courses, developing middle leadership and boosting senior leadership capacity.

The review found no evidence relating to parents’ knowledge of academies or the availability of relevant information for them to use. The longer sponsored and converter academies have been open, the more likely they are to say that they have experienced an increase in first-choice applications. Another source found that a third of respondents reported an increased demand for school places since becoming sponsored or converter academies. The Education Select Committee report on Academies and Free Schools identified concerns that the voice of parents can be marginalised in some academies.

The review identified gaps in the evidence base on academies. Lessons for future policy could be gained through further research into academies. This could be explored through the performance of secondary academies over a longer timeframe (e.g. five years or more), and of primary academies, including a comparison with non-academy schools with similar characteristics, and their impact on different pupil groups. 

Alternatively, it can be examined through investigating the factors that significantly affect performance, in order to understand the mechanisms underlying the policy (many of which continue to be areas of active policy interest – for example, leadership, accountability and governance, collaboration, and membership of academy groupings such as chains).

The extent to which the academies programme has increased competition between schools, and the impact this has had on overall performance across the system can also prove to be a lesson for future policy. Furthermore, the views of parents on the quality of education experienced by their children can be beneficial, as can exploring the extent to which school choice and local accountability are present and a driver of improvement in the current system.

The review
The review was published as part of a series which include a Think Piece arguing that any future expansion in the number of academies should be motivated by a clear vision as to what long-term outcomes for learners academy policy is aiming to achieve.

It also includes a new survey data exploring parents’ knowledge about academy schools and the extent to which they would like more information, an authoritative factsheet and summaries of the 13 key studies reviewed for this guide.

NFER is the UK’s largest independent provider of research, assessment and information services for education, training and children’s services.

Our clients include UK government departments and agencies at both national and local levels, which benefit from NFER’s full range of expert and professional services. Our purpose is to provide independent evidence which improves education and training and hence the lives of learners. Its ambition is to be the research organisation of first choice for those who wish to make a positive difference to learners.

Further Information