Increasing the quality and quantity of an individual’s education is seen by many as a panacea to many social ills: stagnating wages, increases in inequality, and declines in technological progress might be countered by policies aimed at increasing the skills of those who are in danger of falling behind in the modern labour market.
Whether or not education is the cure-all that its advocates suggest, it is widely acknowledged that there is a clear mismatch between the social and private returns to education. Economic theory suggests that on these grounds, education should be subsidised and indeed, in the vast majority of countries, the state plays a major role in funding the education system. What is less obvious is the extent to which the state should manage the system: should teachers be hired, and have their performance managed, by the state? Should the curriculum be set at a national level? Should schools have no say in how their admissions are managed?
In a bid to answer such questions, the United States and Sweden have both moved towards more decentralised school systems through the introduction of more autonomous schools that remain centrally funded; namely, charter schools and free schools. In England, an even more dramatic change has taken place.
Until recently all of England’s schools were to become, or be in the process of becoming, academies by 2022. While the government’s focus has shifted somewhat towards the expansion of grammar schools, it is still the case that academies are a focal point of the government’s education policy, with Education Secretary Justine Greening now encouraging, rather than compelling, schools to gain academy status.
Historically, education in England has been a centralised process: local educational authorities (LEAs) responsible for state education received funding from the central government, which they then distributed to schools under their control, typically according to school size. Community schools, which until recently made up the bulk of the state sector, have all of their staff employed by the LEA, and the LEA owns the school premises and determines the admission criteria.
In the early 2000s this changed when the Labour government began the academies programme that gave control of some secondary schools, which were perceived to be failing, to private sector ‘sponsors.’ These sponsored academies were state-funded schools, but had little restrictions on how they spent their money; furthermore, the school’s governing body, which was appointed by the sponsor running the school, had much greater autonomy from local authority control than the governing bodies of other state-funded schools. By January 2010 there were 203 sponsored academies in existence, all of whom were free to exercise a large number of freedoms – these include hiring and firing of staff, being able to diverge from the national curriculum, set their own performance management system for their teachers, and outsource services previously provided by their LEA.
It is widely acknowledged that there is a clear mismatch between the social and private returns to education.
Using a quasi-experimental research design, we estimate the causal effect of attending one of 94 sponsored academies that opened prior to September 2008 on pupil performance. To account for the fact that schools that became sponsored academies were below the national average in terms of test score performance prior to conversion, we compare outcomes for pupils attending academies that converted between September 2003 and September 2008 with those attending schools that would later convert between September 2009 and September 2010. Looking at the characteristics of these two sets of schools before the start of the programme, we find that they are balanced in terms of test score performance and the demographic make-up of their students. As well as comparing outcomes of students who attend similar schools, we limit our analysis to pupils who were already enrolled in the schools before the schools gained academy status to avoid problems of non-random selection into academies.
Our results suggests that on average, a student attending a sponsored academy between 2002 and 2009, scored 0.10 of a standard deviation higher in their end of school (Key Stage 4 exams) than a comparable pupil attending a school that would later gain academy status. The results are more pronounced the longer a pupil spent in an academy: pupils who spent four years in an academy gained 0.3 standard deviations on their peers who attended similar schools. To give some indication of the size of these effects, the key stage 4 achievement gap between girls and boys is around 0.2 of a standard deviation; similarly, the gap between those who are eligible for free school meals and those who aren’t is approximately 0.75 of a standard deviation. In addition to short term gains, we also find positive effects of academy attendance on the probability of staying on in education, beyond what is compulsory, and entering a degree programme.
An important point is that the sample of schools that we study is a small fraction of the total number of secondary schools in England. Since 2010, the academies programme has expanded at a rapid rate with well over 60% of secondary schools having gained academy status. The extent of the decentralisation of a previously centralised education system is unprecedented amongst advanced economies. Not only has the pace of expansion been rapid, but it has also grown to cover a wide variety of schools: primary schools are also now being ‘academised’ and high-performing schools, known as ‘converter’ academies, have been able to get greater freedoms without the need for a private sector sponsor. The bulk of these new academies are very different from the low performing schools converting prior to 2010; indeed, the growth of secondary academies has largely been due to ‘converters’, who, in their predecessor state, are drawn disproportionately from the high end of the performance distribution. This, combined with evidence from the US suggesting that autonomous schools primarily benefit disadvantaged schools in urban areas, limits the applicability of our findings to the new wave of academies.
Given the results highlighted above, it is natural to ask to whether full ‘academisation’ is a wise idea?
Currently we have no firm answer. While we have evidence of the effectiveness of academy conversion for disadvantaged schools in the secondary sector, there is little reason to think that this is applicable to either high-performing schools in the same sector or schools serving younger pupils. Because any expansion of the programme will be concentrated in the primary sector, where there are relatively few academies operating, this latter point is a pertinent and important area for future research.
Featured image credit: Wood pencil education by Monoar. Public domain via Pixabay.