Academies are an expensive red herring. Here’s how you really improve school standards

How many times must academies be discredited before policymakers look at the proven but less headline-grabbing solution?

The prime minister’s announcement today that, if elected, the Tories will force “mediocre” schools to convert to academies was important for a couple of reasons. First, it indicated that the government wants to make education an election issue. Second, it shows that politicians never learn. There is now a bucket load of evidence that academies don’t raise standards: a report from the House of Commons education committee last week showed this, as has Henry Stewart’s forensic analysis of academies’ results for the Local Schools Network. Furthermore, we have lots of significant research evidence from the US and Sweden where similar “academy-style” schools have been set up. Clearly they are not a good way to invest taxpayers’ money.

Common sense should also tell you that just because you make a school independent of local authority control – which is effectively all an academy is – it doesn’t magically turn it into a beacon of learning. I teach in an academy and am a governor of one as well, and it’s not their academy status which makes them effective, it’s the teaching that goes on in them.

But there is no causal link between academy status and improved teaching – this is where successive governments have gone wrong. Politicians have been obsessed with structural change rather than addressing the core issue, which is raising the quality of teaching and learning in schools. This is what makes a difference to children’s outcomes: when students are taught well, they achieve more.

Teaching quality is the biggest single factor in raising standards. Significant research conducted by John Hattie for the New Zealand government, Robert J Marzano in the US, and the Educational Endowment Foundation in this country, all show that we have to focus on providing teachers like me with meaningful, ongoing training so that we can become better at our jobs. Academies are a complete red herring. If the billions that have been thrown at this programme had been invested in providing teachers with decent, evidence-based training which is “on-the-job”, then standards would have sky-rocketed and we would be vying with the best education systems in the world, such as those in Finland and Singapore.

At the heart of the problem is that much of our continuous professional development has been woefully inadequate. Furthermore, most Ofsted inspectors are clueless, as the increasingly discredited rubric for school inspections shows. Mike Bell at the Evidence Based Teachers Network estimates that 95% of teachersare not aware of which teaching techniques are proven to work in the classroom. The best research shows that good results are achieved when teachers are trained on an ongoing basis and are given the time to reflect upon their practice. This is expensive to do properly, but much more cost-effective than the academies programme: it basically means teachers teaching less and being given more time to study their pedagogy.

It wasn’t until I did a PhD in creative writing and education at Goldsmiths College that I became aware of valid, reliable methods of teaching. I had been teaching for 20 years virtually in the dark. We need to become much more like the medical profession, instituting strategies that are proven to work and given the resources to pursue evidence-based research. Fortunately, there is a movement gathering which embraces both traditionalists like TES columnist Tom Bennett, who also runs the researchEd movement, and more progressive teachers like Tom Sherrington, the inspirational head of Highbury Grove school in London. It is focused on spreading the word about the importance of teacher-led research.

Sadly, the prime minister would not have hit the headlines today by saying he was going to wheel out more teacher training. But that’s what we actually need. The Punch and Judy politics surrounding education, typified by Cameron’s statement today, has to stop.


Published by: @wonderfrancis

Francis Gilbert is a Lecturer in Education at Goldsmiths, University of London, teaching on the PGCE Secondary English programme. He also teaches the Creative Writing module on the MA in Children’s Literature, which is run by Maggie Pitfield and Professor Michael Rosen. Previously, he worked for a quarter of a century in various English state schools teaching English and Media Studies to 11-18 year olds. He has, at times, moonlighted as a journalist, novelist and social commentator. He is the author of ‘Teacher On The Run’, ‘Yob Nation’, ‘Parent Power’, ‘Working The System -- How To Get The Very Best State Education for Your Child’, and a novel about school, ‘The Last Day Of Term’. His first book, ‘I'm A Teacher, Get Me Out Of Here’ was a big hit, becoming a bestseller and being serialised on Radio 4. In his role as an English teacher, he has taught many classic texts over the years and has developed a great many resources to assist readers with understanding, appreciating and responding to them both analytically and creatively. This led him to set up his own small publishing company FGI Publishing ( which has published his study guides as well as a number of books by other authors, including Roger Titcombe’s ‘Learning Matters’ and anthology of creative writing 'The Gold Room'. He is the co-founder, with Melissa Benn and Fiona Millar, of The Local Schools Network,, a blog that celebrates non-selective state schools, and has his own website, He has appeared numerous times on radio and TV, including Newsnight, the Today Programme, Woman’s Hour and the Russell Brand Show. In June 2015, he was awarded a PhD in Creative Writing and Education by Goldsmiths.

Categories Academies, PedagogyTags, , , , , , 2 Comments

2 thoughts on “Academies are an expensive red herring. Here’s how you really improve school standards”

  1. This article seems to be suggesting that the strategy behind the introduction of academies was to improve the quality of general educational provision in this country. This is to confuse strategy, “a plan of action designed to achieve a long-term or overall aim”, with tactics which refers to how one orders or arranges these actions “especially during contact with an enemy” (definitions from The strategy was never anything but the breaking up of the publicly owned and publicly accountable state system of education. One central tactic of this strategy was to present itself to the public as a well-meaning desire to improve standards. As noted in this article it has done no such thing. Nonetheless the long-term or overall aim, the strategy, is moving ahead nicely. It is the same distinction that Ken Loach draws attention to in talking about ‘austerity’ in the UK: “Judged by its own stated goals, government (austerity) policy isn’t working – borrowing will be around £61.5billion higher than planned. Of course the reality is that austerity policies are actually designed to dismantle the welfare state, bring down wages and fully marketise the economy, destroying all the social and economic gains of ordinary people since the second world war. So from the government point of view the policies are working.”

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