Select Committee on Education and Skills Fifth Report

2 Diversity of Provision

7. Our first report was on Diversity of Provision. The concept of diversity remains a central plank of the Government's plans for education. Indeed, since our report was published policy has moved even further in this direction. Our report focused largely on the Specialist Schools initiative, a programme giving extra funding to schools that take on a curriculum focus (or 'specialism'), and that have reached acceptable standards. In order to participate, schools themselves must normally raise £50,000 in sponsorship which is then matched by public funds. Originally, the proportion of schools that could gain specialist status was limited. In November 2002, the Government removed the cap on the percentage of schools that could become specialist schools. In early 2005 approximately two thirds of secondary schools were designated as specialist schools and the Government has stated its objective that all but a very few schools should acquire a specialism by 2008.[4] Subject to approval, schools may now also establish two specialisms. The position as we return to this subject is that specialist schools have become the norm rather than the exception and will soon be almost universal.

8. A development which further increases the diversity of secondary schools is the City Academy programme. Academies are new schools, built in areas where educational achievement is persistently low and sponsored by a private donor. When our report was published, only three Academies were in operation, with plans for 30 more by 2006. This programme has since been expanded significantly. The Government now plans to found 200 Academies by 2010, 60 of which will be located in Greater London.[5] The Academy programme has provoked some controversy, and, given the substantial expansion in scope of this programme (and hence, in expenditure) since our report, we now reconsider its implications for secondary education.

Specialist schools

9. As we noted in our original report, the Specialist Schools programme is largely marketed as a school improvement tool. The Government's response to our report stated that "the programme is based around a specialist focus on part of the curriculum as a catalyst for whole school improvement".[6] Further, its aim for all schools to specialise is justified in the Five Year Strategy by reference to improved results, noting that "specialist schools have improved faster that the average, and add more value for pupils regardless of their prior attainment".[7]

10. Specialist schools are said to achieve better examination results and higher added value than schools which do not have a specialism. During our inquiry, both the Specialist Schools Trust and the DfES presented research in support of this claim. This evidence was disputed by others, who suggested that Specialist Schools do not achieve significantly better results once factors such as the socio-economic profile of their intake are accounted for.[8] Most recently, an Ofsted evaluation has found that specialist schools are performing better than other schools and that they have made significant improvements over the last three years. Ofsted concluded that:

"Being a specialist school makes a difference. Working to declared targets, dynamic leadership by key players, a renewed sense of purpose, the willingness to be a pathfinder, targeted use of funding and being part of an optimistic network of like-minded schools all contribute to an impetus and climate for improvement."[9]

11. The fundamental question we posed in our report was whether the addition of a specialism was the main driver of any improvement in the performance of specialist schools, or whether other factors might have a greater influence. A number of factors are involved in gaining specialist status, apart from choosing a curriculum focus, which could account for improved results. Firstly, the designation process involves the attainment of school management and leadership competencies. Secondly, the school must normally raise £50,000. Schools then receive Government funding of £100,000 for a capital project plus recurrent funding of around £126 per pupil per year for four years.[10] The effect of certified good management practices and of extra funding alone may account for better results regardless of whether a school has chosen to specialise in a particular subject area. We have not received any evidence to resolve this important question. Nor has there been any assessment of levels of achievement in schools before they were awarded specialist status and how that affects subsequent results.

12. Indeed, Ofsted's recent report on specialist schools found that these schools often achieve better results in subjects outside their specialist area, saying:

"The rate of improvement in pupils' performance in specialist subjects is levelling off. There are various reasons for this, one of which is that raising standards from above average to well above average calls for concerted use of all the school's resources. In addition, while senior managers are closely involved in setting targets, middle managers, who are most involved in specialist subjects, are not sufficiently involved in the day-to-day work of monitoring and improving the quality of provision. Less than half the schools met their targets for these subjects. These weaknesses, identified in the last report, have not been tackled with sufficient rigour."[11]

Ofsted recommended that "individual schools should focus on improving results in specialist subjects where results are lower than those in other subjects and targets are not being met."[12]

13. This evidence casts some doubt on the assertion that the acquisition of a specialism is a main driver of improvement in specialist schools. In their response to our report on Diversity of Provision, the Government admitted that, although a number of studies had been carried out to measure the performance of specialist schools compared to non-specialist, no research had been undertaken to determine the effect of specialism itself, as opposed to other factors. For example, no control sample had been set up involving schools that were given extra funding or completed the designation process without specialising. The Government said:

"The Government regards all three of the features identified by the Committee (funding, management process, nature of the specialist policy) as necessarily integrated elements of the specialist schools programme. Research, surveys and case studies have borne on these three elements but there has been no research attempting to evaluate in quantitative terms the contribution made by each of the separate elements. It is possible that such work, which would be complex, would identify particular significance to one of the elements but the Government sees no reason in the existing literature to expect that any one element would be shown to be unimportant to the whole. On the broader front, the Government will ensure that the achievements of specialist schools continue to be closely monitored and consider what additional research should be commissioned."[13]

14. We do not accept the Government's assertion that it would be too difficult to measure the relative effect of the various factors involved in the specialist school programme. We believe that it is important to determine whether the extra funding, the specialist focus or the designation process is responsible for the improvement in performance displayed by most specialist schools. We therefore reiterate our call for further research in this area, to ensure that the factors behind the improvement of specialist schools are fully understood.

15. We also have ongoing concerns that schools in affluent areas find it much easier to raise the sponsorship required to attain specialist status than those in deprived circumstances. Not only does this mean that schools in affluent areas find it easier to become specialist schools, those schools in deprived areas where sponsorship money is scarce also divert significant time and energy into fundraising activities with little apparent return. In their response to our report, the Government said that the Specialist Schools Trust was funded to help schools raise sponsorship and that the Partnership Fund could help in cases of particular difficulty.[14] Our evidence suggests[15] that schools in less affluent areas continue to experience difficulties in raising the funds necessary to attain specialist status and we urge the Government to monitor this issue closely.

16. Furthermore, our report identified problems in areas where some schools had attained specialist status and others had not. We were concerned that the specialist schools programme should lead to improvements across the board, rather than a rise in performance in individual schools to the detriment of others nearby. In their response, the Government admitted:

"There has been no substantial research into the impact of specialist schools on neighbouring schools. In one sense this becomes less significant with the drive to make all schools specialist but the issue is important and the Government will consider how this should be addressed."[16]

We are unaware of any Government action to address this issue or to commission subsequent research in this area.

17. If the Government's Five Year Strategy is implemented, the Specialist Schools programme will become the universal model for secondary education. We are therefore concerned that the reasons for the comparatively good performance displayed by many specialist schools are still not securely established. This seems to undermine the Government's commitment to evidence-based policy. Without being able to weigh the relative importance of the factors involved in the achievements of specialist schools, the Government cannot be assured that the roll out of this programme will have the desired results, or that the success of the current group of specialist schools will automatically be replicated elsewhere.

18. We have a more general concern that the Government's rhetoric of diversity regarding specialist schools is often confusing. At times, Ministers champion specialist schools as an expansion of choice for parents, offering "support and choice to pupils with particular aptitudes and interests".[17] The implication here is that parents whose children had, for example, a particular talent for languages, would choose to send them to a specialist language school. Yet all specialist schools must teach the National Curriculum and cater for pupils with no particular aptitude or interest in their specialism. Furthermore, in many cases parents live too far from a school with an appropriate specialism to take advantage of it. This policy tension was evident in a comment made in 2004 by the then Secretary of State, when he stated that the objective of Government education policy was the improvement of all schools and "the encouragement of people to go to their local neighbourhood school",[18] regardless of its specialism. There is an inherent conflict between the former Secretary of State's stated aspiration that children should attend their local school and the way in which the Specialist Schools model is often presented by Ministers as an expansion of choice for parents.

19. Diversity can be provided in a number of ways. One way is to establish a range of different types of schools offering different teaching or subjects for parents to choose between. Another way is to provide diversity within a school, perhaps in the form of a personalised curriculum. In its public pronouncements, the Government sometimes seems confused about the kind of diversity it wishes to promote in secondary education. In its Five Year Strategy, it states that the personalisation of the curriculum will be an important objective. This objective need not necessarily be associated with the existence of different types of school. The Government must therefore demonstrate how diversity in types of school will contribute to its aim of diversity within schools. The Five Year Strategy asserts that this can be achieved via partnerships of specialist schools working together to provide expert teaching and dedicated facilities in a range of curriculum areas. There is no reason why diversity between schools should be at odds with diversity within schools. We welcome this proposal in principle, however we have some concerns regarding the practical operation of partnerships of schools, which will have no statutory basis. We return to this issue later in this report.


20. The Government's Academy programme is much more limited in its numbers than the Specialist Schools programme, but is much more expensive in its capital costs. Academies emerged from the Fresh Start initiative, in which schools which for three consecutive years failed to achieve five A* to C grades at GCSE for at least 15% of pupils would be considered for closure and replacement with a new school. The DfES describes Academies as "publicly funded independent schools" outside LEA control. They must teach the National Curriculum core subjects and carry out Key Stage 3 assessment tests. Aside from those requirements, they "are free to adopt innovative approaches to the content and delivery of the curriculum", which may be affected by the interests of their sponsor.[19]

21. Academies do not benefit from any extra revenue funding, but they do receive considerable capital funding from the DfES, ranging so far from £13 million to £38 million.[20] In addition, independent sponsors pay up to 10% of the capital costs, capped at a contribution of £2 million. This represents an average of just over £23 million per Academy in public funds, or almost £25 million when the contribution of sponsors is included. Seventeen Academies are so far operating, with another 34 in development. The Government has announced plans for a total of 200 Academies. If future Academies attract a similar level of funding to those so far agreed (and we see no reason why this should not be the case) the total capital cost of the programme would be nearly £5 billion—a significant sum.

22. The capital cost of Academies is significantly beyond that of other new schools. The Academies currently in operation generally provide places for around 1,200 students in each school. At an average cost of £25 million per school, this represents a cost of almost £21,000 per place. In contrast, the Government's basic need cost multipliers for building new secondary school accommodation is just under £14,000 per place.[21] It is equally important to note that although Academies are planned to take large numbers of pupils eventually, they often begin with small rolls and some build up from a year 7 only intake in their first year of operation. This increases the cost per pupil far beyond the cost per place.

23. These figures are not included in the Five Year Strategy. Indeed, none of the proposals are costed in that document. Nevertheless, the City Academy programme represents a significant investment of public funds, which deserves proper scrutiny. We recognise that secondary education has failed in some inner city areas and we understand the temptation to believe that Academies are the solution. Yet £5 billion is a lot of money to commit to one programme. The Government could have limited the number of Academies to 30 or 50 and carried out an assessment of their effectiveness before expanding the programme so significantly.[22] Whilst we welcome the Government's desire to invest resources in areas of educational underachievement, we consider that the rapid expansion of the Academy policy comes at the expense of rigorous evaluation.

24. We have a number of specific concerns regarding the Academy programme. Our first is that the programme has been expanded without proper evidence to show that the current Academies are working well. We asked Mr Clarke, the then Secretary of State, to describe the evidence base for the DfES Academy programme and what evaluation of existing Academy schools had taken place. He answered:

"[B]ecause we only have a very small number of academies at this moment, by definition you cannot have had a research programme to look at that relatively small number of academies before moving forward […] I would say that a proper scientific assessment of the impact of academies could not meaningfully take place for two or three years at least, probably six or seven years of a school cohort going through, to assess what happened."[23]

25. The Secretary of State went on to say that "the reason why academies are in a sense a diversion from the whole debate is that it is a very small number of schools out of all the secondary schools in Britain"[24] Although few in number, at an average cost of £25 million per school, Academies represent a significant investment of resources. The communities that will be served by Academies are particularly vulnerable and have suffered from many years of inadequate education provision. We welcome the Government's desire to invest in the schools serving these communities. But the Government should ensure that the current programme of Academies is thoroughly evaluated, both in respect of the performance of individual academies and the impact on neighbouring schools, before embarking on a major expansion of an untested model.

26. In later written evidence, the DfES described the system being used to monitor the performance of Academies:

"The evaluation of the Academies programme is a five year longitudinal study. Price Waterhouse Coopers produced an annual report for DfES in November 2003. The second annual report is due to be delivered in December. The study will be looking at the impact of Academies on children from disadvantaged areas and their families and communities and the extent to which Academies raise educational standards. We did not publish the first year's report, because it was based on a small number of open Academies, but we will consider publishing the second. We cannot wait five years for the study. These children only get one chance in life and we can't afford to wait that long before we make the radical break with the past, which Academies represent."[25]

The first of these annual reports has been obtained and disseminated by the press through a request under the Freedom of Information Act. We understand that the second annual report is still in the drafting process.

27. We understand that it is difficult to conduct sound research based on a very small sample of schools, particularly when those schools may vary significantly in their profile (some Academies are brand new schools, others are built on the site of a failing school and some have a significant transient population from year to year). We fail to understand why the DfES is putting such substantial resources into Academies when it has not produced the evidence on which to base the expansion of this programme. We recommend that the Department publish its evaluations of Academies, making clear the limitations of the research due to the small number of schools involved.

28. Mr Clarke described to the Committee the good results attained by some Academies in comparison with predecessor schools on the same site. He cited the achievements of Bexley Academy, the City Academy, Bristol and King's Academy, Middlesbrough, which have all significantly raised the percentage of pupils attaining 5 A*-C grades at GCSE. We welcome the success of Academies which have raised educational standards in areas of historical underachievement. However, we observe that other Academy schools seem not to have produced improved results compared to the school that was previously on their site. Figures published in January 2005 for 11 Academies showed that five have not improved performance at GCSE and that in some cases, the percentage achieving 5 A*-C grades has actually declined.

29. We are also concerned that the good results achieved by some Academies may have come at the price of excluding those children that are harder to teach and reducing the proportion of children in the school from deprived backgrounds (whom they were originally intended to serve). In late 2004, the King's and Unity Academies in Middlesbrough were challenged by Professor Stephen Gorard of York University about their higher than average number of permanent exclusions.[26] The two schools had expelled 61 pupils between them since the start of the school year in 2002 , compared to just 15 from all other secondary schools in the borough. Professor Gorard also found that the number of students entitled to free school meals at Unity was 47%, compared with nearly 60% at its predecessor school.

30. When we raised this issue with the then Secretary of State, he said:

"the steps which I have announced and which will be carried through which say every school, including academies, has to play its full part in working together, dealing with everybody who is excluded in a particular community, on a fair basis, so you do not get some schools taking an over large proportion and other schools taking very few… I think that is the right policy and collaboration will enable this to happen this way and including academies. The idea that people make academies succeed or specialist schools succeed just by saying 'Okay, come in and let's get rid of X number of pupils and that solves it' is simply wrong. It is not based on what actually happens in any respect whatsoever."[27]

Subsequent written evidence from the DfES claimed that "the percentage of pupils at Unity eligible for free school meals is 49.1% which is practically the same as in the predecessor schools [i.e. 60%] and is well above the LEA average (32.3%) and the national average (14.5%)."[28]

31. As the Government continually repeats, the development of the Academies programme is still in its early stages. As yet, the evidence for and against the initiative is primarily anecdotal. What evidence there is paints a mixed picture. Despite the paucity of evidence, the Government is enthusiastically pushing forward with the programme and with new Academies. We caution against this approach and urge the DfES to monitor carefully the performance of academies and adjust its policies accordingly. In particular, the Department should consistently measure the proportion of pupils entitled to Free School Meals and the number of exclusions in Academies.

32. As with specialist schools, we are concerned that the effect of Academies on nearby schools should be monitored. Where new Academies are established, the local school place planning process needs to be carefully managed in order to prevent any adverse effects on existing schools. For example, if a new academy draws pupils away from existing schools, those schools will suffer a reduction in funding and may have to reduce staffing levels as a result. In addition, it is intended that all Academies will have sixth forms. This may result in well-qualified teachers from nearby schools without sixth forms moving to Academies, creating recruitment problems in those schools. The Government should monitor the effect of Academies on neighbouring schools, in terms of funding (including by the creation of surplus places at neighbouring schools) and staffing (e.g. the loss of well-qualified teachers at one school to a nearby Academy with a sixth form).

33. The Academy programme has raised controversy in many areas, particularly due to the nature of the sponsors involved in schools. A number of the existing Academies are sponsored by evangelical Christian groups and this has led to allegations that sponsors could have undue influence over the curriculum (for example, giving greater weight to creationism than the theory of evolution). This involvement can be bought relatively cheaply. For less than £1 million, as compared to an average of £25 million in public funds, sponsors can gain considerable influence or control over a school. Whilst we would not wish to suggest that this influence is being used maliciously, this seems a small price to pay, particularly for corporate sponsors.

34. There is a fundamental question mark over the role and function of an Academy's sponsor. What does a sponsor add to a school? Do they stimulate improvement above and beyond that of a school which is not sponsored? When we asked the then Secretary of State what benefits sponsorship brings to an Academy, he responded:

"If you go through most of the academies so far, you will see a significant education improvement, even by comparison with the predecessor school, in each of those areas. The education benefit is the engagement of the sponsor who is really trying to take it forward […] I would argue—and this goes back to research conducted literally decades ago—that it is the leadership ethos structure of the school which determines its results. […] I think the academies are working to that end and the involvement of the external sponsor has helped that to happen in quite significant ways."[29]

35. The Secretary of State's response implies that good sponsors would be closely involved in "the leadership ethos structure of the school". This raises further questions. Most sponsors do not have a background in education. Should they be involved in day-to-day management of the school, which is normally a matter for the head teacher? Does the sponsor bear any accountability if the school fails? If so, to whom is he or she accountable and how?

36. We agree that the participation of an enthusiastic and committed private sponsor might benefit a school. But once again, the DfES does not seem to have set up a rigorous enough structure to evaluate the effects of sponsorship. It might be prudent to establish a number of Academies without sponsors so that the effect of sponsorship can be properly monitored and tested, or to examine the role of sponsorship of different characters in CTCs. The Department should also consider allowing donors to sponsor schools which are not Academies on the same basis, in order to measure the effectiveness of sponsorship even more accurately.

The Rhetoric of Diversity

37. The Specialist Schools and Academy programmes have added to the increasing diversity in the types of secondary school now available. As we noted in our original report on Diversity of Provision, "the present Government has explicitly linked this form of diversity with its efforts to raise standards".[30] We do not believe that the link between diverse types of schools and improved overall standards has been proven. We have similar concerns regarding both the Academy initiative and the Specialist Schools programme. Despite the Government's proclaimed attachment to evidence-based policy, expensive schemes seem to be rolled out before being adequately tested and evaluated compared to other less expensive alternatives.

4   Five Year Strategy, chapter 4, paragraph 16. Back

5   There are currently 17 Academies in operation: The Business Academy, Bexley, sponsored by Sir David Garrard; Greig City Academy, Haringey, sponsored by The Greig Trust and the Church of England; Unity City Academy, Middlesbrough, sponsored by Amey plc; Capital City Academy, Brent, sponsored by Sir Frank Lowe; The City Academy, Bristol, sponsored by a consortium including John Laycock, a Director of Bristol City Football Club, the University of the West of England and Bristol Business West; The West London Academy, Ealing, sponsored by Alec Reed, founder and Chairman of Reed Executive plc; Manchester Academy sponsored by the United Learning Trust (The Church Schools Company) and Manchester Science Park Ltd; The King's Academy, Middlesbrough, sponsored by the Emmanuel Schools Foundation; Djanogly City Academy, Nottingham, sponsored by Sir Harry Djanogly; The City of London Academy, Southwark,, sponsored by the Corporation of London; The Academy at Peckham, sponsored by Lord Harris of Peckham; Walsall Academy, sponsored by the Mercers' Company and Thomas Telford Online; The London Academy, Barnet, sponsored by Peter Shalson, Chairman of SGI Ltd; Mossbourne Community Academy, Hackney, sponsored by Clive Bourne, life president of Seabourne Group plc; Stockley Academy, Hillingdon, sponsored by Barry Townsley, Chairman of stockbrokers Insinger Townsley; Lambeth Academy, sponsored by the United Learning Trust (The Church Schools Company) and Northampton Academy, sponsored by the United Learning Trust (The Church Schools Company). Back

6   Education and Skills Committee, Fourth Special Report of Session 2002-03, Government Response to the Committee's Fourth Report: Secondary Education: Diversity of Provision, HC 1096, paragraph 19. Back

7   Five Year Strategy, chapter 4, paragraph 15. Back

8   For example, oral evidence from Dr Sandie Schagen, Diversity of Provision Q 186. Back

9   Specialist Schools: a second evaluation, Ofsted, 16 February 2004, HMI 2362, p 3. Back

10   Currently £126 per pupil but rising to £129 from September 2005. Back

11   Page 3 Back

12   Page 4.  Back

13   Government Response to the Committee's Fourth Report: Secondary Education: Diversity of Provision, paragraph 20. Back

14   Ibid, Paragraph 1. Back

15   Secondary Education: Diversity of Provision, paragraph 34. Back

16   Ibid, paragraph 7/8. Back

17   Five Year Strategy, chapter 4, paragraph 14. Back

18   Oral evidence to the Transport Select Committee, School Transport inquiry, HC 318-ii, Q 207. Back

19   Ev 30 Back

20   House of Lords written answer, HL 3766, 19 July 2004. Back

21   Department for Education and Skills, Education Projects Cost and Performance Data, April 2003. Back

22   It may be useful to compare Academies with CTCs, which are in some respects similar schools and about which much more information is available. Back

23   Q 50 Back

24   Q 56 Back

25   SE 4 Back

26   BBC File On 4: City Academies: Tuesday, 23 November, 2004. Transcript available at Back

27   Q 68 Back

28   Ev 29 Back

29   Qq 51 and 52 Back

30   Summary, page 3. Back

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