Are academies worth the money?

1 Dec

Photo by Cherice, via Flickr

By Chris Hansell

£1 billion is a lot of money. It is past the point for most people to successfully visualise, it’s meaning lost in a cacophony of noughts. As it happens it is also the amount of money the Ministry of Education overspent on their flagship academies programme between 2010 and 2012.

I’ve written about academies before and have my reservations about their benefits. I even discussed it in a light-hearted debate with some of my colleagues.

But my concerns with the policy never anticipated this kind of money mismanagement. With the Guardian reporting an additional £767 million of extra spending up to April 2013 these costs don’t seem to be lowering soon.

The problem is this: academies are not better than state comprehensive schools. In many ways they are more or less the same in terms of pupil achievement. What could warrant so much extra money when it is not leaving pupils with a sounder education?

Some academies have boosted pupil numbers leaving with five GCSEs at grades A to C by 8%. But as Henry Stewart and Melissa Benn of the Local Schools Network point out this figure only represents academies that score below 35% ‘benchmark’. They also reveal that ‘results at non academies below the benchmark also grew by 8%.’

Another key piece of evidence used in support of the academies programme is a piece of research produced by two academics at the London School of Economics. The research found that poorly performing schools turned into academies under the New Labour government improved more over time than similar schools which had not yet converted.

These findings were exploited by the media to such a degree that one of its authors was compelled to write in the Guardian to clarify his work. The academic, Stephen Machin, said ‘our evidence on Labour academies has frequently been marshalled in support of the new academies programme’ but not often with the fact that ‘new academies are rather different.’

In order to cover the overspending the Department for Education has taken money from elsewhere in its own budget. The Independent reports £95 million was taken from a ‘school improvement programme aimed at raising standards’. And this is just one example. Not only is the government overspending on a project that does not seem to improve education, but it is taking money away from other projects that might.

In a recession where we are being asked to grit our teeth and stomach cuts to all sorts of public services shouldn’t our government be more careful about where it puts such a large amount of money?


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