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Michael Gove reportedly has a bust of Lenin in his office alongside Thatcher’s portrait, reflecting his admiration for revolutionaries of all stripes. Certainly, his mass expansion of the ‘academisation/free schools’ program was revolutionary, passing the Education Bill in just 77 days after taking office.  The implementation was similarly speedy, with over 50% of schools becoming (or applying to become) academies by 2012, after Gove personally wrote to every Head Teacher across England, inviting them to convert to academies.

With this change, it is useful to clarify important details.  An academy is a school funded directly by the Department for Education and is independent of local authority control. They are self-governing and, although still subject to Ofsted inspections, have greater freedoms over what and how they teach. Academies were originally developed under the Blair government, but their radical expansion over the last decade is Gove’s brainchild.  

Originally, schools could either be forced to convert as part of a government intervention for a failing school, or could voluntarily convert themselves. However, under Gove’s New Free Schools program, individuals and organisations could now apply to directly open free schools, with over 400 opening between 2010-2015. Free schools have the same legal status as academies, the only difference being that rather than converting they have been specifically established as academies.

Such rapid change, especially with educational authorities being disempowered, was likely to be controversial. Caution must be paid when examining academisation whilst it’s still in its infancy. However, it seems clear that the new expansion of academies has successfully raised school standards.

Early examples of academisation under Blair created GCSE results above the national average. Of the academies created by Labour, 80% saw improvements, with 40% seeing their results at GCSE rise by 10% in just one year. 

Average GCSE performance for these schools are now more than 50% higher than they were prior to academisation. Mossbourne Academy, which was formerly the failing Hackney Downs School, became the most improved school in the country after converting.

Primary schools particularly benefit from academisation. By 2019, primary academies had outperformed local authority primaries at Key Stage 1, including in phonics, reading,writing and mathematics.

Free primary schools are also twice as likely to be ranked ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted, with 36% of free primaries qualifying for the grade versus 16% of local authority primary schools. PISA scores, an international educational metric measured by the OECD, saw rising scores for the UK by 2018, moving up from 22nd in reading to 14th globally, and similarly from 27th to 18th in maths, compared to three years earlier. 

These improvements will not be wholly attributable to academisation but they were achieved with stagnant or declining funding, suggesting such organisational changes are responsible.

The National Audit Office (NAO) has attributed the ‘good performance’ of academies to ‘high quality leadership and governance’ and ‘improved teaching’. They also found that, controlled for pupils’ personal circumstances and prior attainment, academies’ performance at GCSE is ‘substantially better, on average, than other schools.’ 

Detractors have argued that these results simply reflect academies drawing more able pupils, despite their lack of selectivity, similar to the old two-tier system, with academies as ‘the new grammars.’ However, with academies admitting on average  higher proportions of pupils eligible for free school meals, and with special education needs and the NAO suggesting ‘improvements are unlikely to have been achieved through the selection of more able pupils,’ this criticism seems ill founded. 

However, some criticisms appear more justified. Advocates for academisation suggest it is a useful mechanism for facilitating better schools in deprived areas, and helping to raise aspiration and attainments for deprived children. This hasn’t always been the case, with more free schools opening in areas of high school quality (such as London) rather than worse-performing areas such as the North East. Additionally, although free schools are more likely to open in areas of deprivation, the level of pupils admitted into free schools on free school meals is slightly lower than might be expected, with 24% of reception at free schools on free school meals, versus 32% nationally.

However this doesn’t seem to condemn the academies program, instead suggesting that more efforts need to be made to spread the beneficial effects of academisation to areas of lower school standards and encourage pupils from more deprived backgrounds to attend. 

Despite the Department for Education’s assertion that free schools received three applications per place, when taken into account the parent preference system used to select schools, it is arguable that free schools are among the least popular. 

However, this may well be down to the fact a lot of these schools are very new, untested and possibly even unknown within the community and are thus less likely to be selected. This does not diminish the evidence that free schools are effective in raising pupil attainment. 

Overall, it seems the academisation initiative has been widely successful in raising school standards, and presents an exciting new model for schools of the future. Despite some limited issues in regards to uptake and distribution of new free schools, they appear to be serving their communities well, with more being necessary to widen opportunity for the most deprived. Conservatives should naturally find a system in which individual initiative, whether that of staff or of parents, attractive, as opposed to a top down system which is vulnerable to public bureaucracy. This is especially true when individual initiative seems to ‘provide the results.’

Josh is currently undertaking work experience at Bright Blue. Views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue.