Page last updated at 00:08 GMT, Monday, 14 December 2009

Academies accused of dumbing down

By Hannah Richardson
Education reporter, BBC News

Academy pupils
Some ICT qualifications are worth four GCSEs

Some academies are using Freedom of Information laws to hide evidence of "dumbing down", it is claimed.

GCSE results in England's state-funded independent schools are said to be improving at twice the national rate but Academies will not publish details.

But a report claims some academies push pupils into taking exams that are less academically rigorous than GCSEs to boost their league table position.

The government says academies are transforming standards and lives.

Questions have been raised about the value of some vocational qualifications. They also take up less teaching time than GCSEs.

There are Academies which dazzle in the league tables but at the expense of a solid academic education
Civitas report

They can be worth up to four top GCSEs grades (A* - C ) in the league tables.

The researchers from the think-tank Civitas suspected that some academies which showed a fast improvement rate in their published headline GCSE scores were using these examinations to boost their results.

But because academies are exempt from Freedom of Information rules they are not obliged to release the breakdown of their results.

General results - including the new benchmark of the percentage of pupils getting five good GCSEs (or equivalent) including maths and English - are published for academies in the normal way however.

Civitas then contacted 80 academy principals and asked them for the details of their GCSE or equivalent results among other things.

Only 43% of the 40 academies that agreed to take part were willing to disclose the subjects and qualifications that their pupils had taken.

Of those which did, some did indeed reveal a high number of vocational qualifications and a low number of academic qualifications achieving grades A* to C. The range of subjects studied also appeared limited, Civitas said.

Edexcel BTEC First Certificates level 2 - worth 2 GCSEs
Edexcel BTEC First Diploma level 2 - worth 4 GCSEs
OCR Level 2 National Award/Certificate - 2 or 4 GCSEs
Applied or vocational GCSEs grades A*-C worth 2 GCSEs

The headline performance in GCSEs of a number of academies was considerably lower when these vocational qualifications were not included, said researchers.

The report gives a number of examples of academies which are performing very well in their five A*-C GCSEs and equivalent figures, but much less well when English and maths are included.

One academy in the East Midlands has an A* - C rate which drops 21 percentage points when only GCSEs are included.

But all students are entered for a particular vocational qualification worth four GCSEs and the pass rate is 100%.

The report says the raison d'etre of academies is to improve the life chances of the least privileged, and getting as many youngsters as possible achieving five A* - C grades at GCSE is instrumental in that.

"Improved life chances are however much less likely to be realised if the piece of paper academy students walk away with shows not a handful of academic subjects, but single qualifications with high values in the league tables yet low value in life."

The report said there probably were "exemplary academies with excellent curricula" but there were also those that "dazzle in the league tables" at the expense of a solid academic education.

'Tough measures'

"At the moment it is impossible to know which scenario is more prevalent," it adds calling for full disclosure of Academies' exam results.

The Ministry of Justice is expected to rule that academies become subject to FOI laws in due course, but Civitas wants a freeze in the expansion of the programme until a proper evaluation can be carried out.

A spokesman for the Department for Children, Schools and Families said: "We deliberately introduced the tough five A* to C measure, specifically including English and maths GCSEs, so parents can scrutinise results in core subjects for all state schools, including academies, and no one can be accused of boosting their table position with so called 'soft subjects'.

"The annual tables also specifically look at the proportion of pupils getting two or more A* to C science GCSEs; and one or more A* to C in modern foreign language GCSEs in every single state school.

"Academies results are treated no differently to any other state school - it would be a logistical nightmare to collate and publish the detailed breakdowns of individual exams sat by each of the half million GCSE students each year."

Spin and substance

He added that steps to make academies subject to Freedom of Information laws, like all other schools, would be set out in the new year.

General Secretary of the NUT Christine Blower said it had long been known that the vaunted achievements of Academies were more a result of spin than substance.

"The government's constantly changing and unfair methods of measuring a school' progress means there will always be what are considered successful and unsuccessful Academies; this reflects the reality of all other schools.

"The Civitas report is not surprising it reflects the desperate need of the Government to promote a failed policy".

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