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Academies’ ‘Success’ a Sham? Survey Exposes Dumbing Down at Flagship Schools

New survey uncovers alarming evidence that deprived young people are being short-changed by Academies

  • Only 43% of the 40 Academies that participated in the survey were willing to disclose the subjects and qualifications their students had been entered for at GCSE
  • Evidence strongly suggests Academies are reluctant to reveal that students are being pushed into less challenging subjects and qualifications to drive up headline results

Both government and the Tories are extolling Academies on the basis of ‘GCSE’ results which are improving at ‘over twice the rate’ of other state schools. But new evidence, in a report from the independent think-tank Civitas, The Secrets of Academies’ Success, raises serious doubts over whether Academies are in reality all they have been cracked up to be.


When the government champions Academies’ A*-C improvement at GCSE, other than in the case of English and maths, we don’t know which subjects Academies are gaining their A*-Cs in. Furthermore, we don’t even know whether Academies are gaining these A*-Cs in GCSEs at all – or instead in what’s dubbed ‘equivalent’ vocational qualifications.

  • Firstly, Academies are not publishing the subjects and qualifications in which they are achieving their so-called headline results – that is, the percentage achieving ‘5+A*-C GCSEs or equivalent’ and ‘5+A*-C GCSEs or equivalent including English and maths’.
  • Secondly, unlike all other state-funded schools, Academies are exempt from the Freedom of Information Act – meaning a breakdown of their results cannot be requested.
  • Thirdly, compounding the secrecy shrouding Academies’ results, the DCSF has claimed that they do not hold “that level of detail” about Academies’ results.

‘It’s extraordinary that the government is so fixated on headline A*-C rates that it apparently doesn’t regard the subjects and qualifications Academies are doing as significant,’ said Anastasia de Waal, Head of Family and Education and author of the report.


To try to discover which subjects and qualifications Academies are doing at GCSE, Civitas carried out a survey of 118 Academy principals, to which 40 Academies responded.

  • Out of those Academies that agreed to participate in the research only 43 per cent were willing to disclose their latest GCSE and equivalent results by subject and qualification
  • And only just over half of principals surveyed, 55 per cent, thought that Academies’ should, like all other state schools, be obliged to publish this breakdown of their results

Yet at the same time

  • 88 per cent of Academy principals surveyed considered their Academy to be doing either very well or well
  • And 80 per cent of principals considered their exam results to be a main indicator of the Academy’s success

‘These conflicting responses beg the question: if so many Academies consider themselves to be successful, why are so few willing to reveal the subjects and qualifications they’re doing?’ commented Anastasia de Waal. ‘Surely if Academies are confident that they’re serving their students well, there’s nothing to hide.’


A London-based Academy principal exactly confirmed suspicions that Academies’ reticence to reveal a breakdown of their results is because they do not want to disclose the subjects and qualifications they are doing – and those that they are not.

‘[Academies should not have to publish a breakdown of their results] because it will identify the subjects that the academy has chosen, through its freedoms, not to prioritise e.g. separate sciences, geography etc…’

Results submitted to Civitas illustrated how some subjects are indeed ‘not a priority’. A Yorkshire and the Humber-based Academy had no geography GCSE entries and only 9 GCSE history entries in a cohort of around 150 students. An Academy in the East Midlands had just12 entries for history and geography respectively, in a cohort of around 230. In a North East-based Academy, there were only 15 entries for geography and history respectively, compared to a cohort of over 200.

Another Yorkshire and the Humber-based principal who was against the publication of Academies’ results argued:

‘I don’t really mind but what is the point exactly? Parents don’t choose schools on exam results, especially in deprived areas.’

The point is to ensure that students in ‘deprived areas’ are not also being deprived of a solid academic curriculum.

A number of other principals argued against the publication of Academy results by subject and qualification on the grounds of them being ‘misleading’.

‘[T]he results alone do not provide an accurate picture.’ South East-based Academy

However the headline 5+A*-C rates alone clearly provide a much more misleading picture, as illustrated by the submitted results below.

For example, one Yorkshire and the Humber-based Academy which submitted its results, has a 5+A*-C GCSE and equivalent rate in the high 60s. Looking at the breakdown of their results by qualifications, however, reveals that in the actual GCSEs done by the Academy, the A*-C rate is only 43 per cent. By contrast, in the vocational entries, BTECs and OCR Nationals, the A*-C rate is 100 per cent and 96 per cent, respectively.

In one East Midlands-based Academy, the 5+A*-C GCSE and equivalent rate is in the 80s. However only 65 per cent of GCSE entries have achieved A*-C, whilst 100 per cent of BTEC and OCR Nationals entries have achieved A*-C.


Vocational ICT qualifications are one of the commonest courses boosting results. Although worth up to 4 A*-Cs in the league tables, these qualifications take up far less teaching time than GCSEs. Uncharacteristically, Ofsted has condemned these qualifications, the most popular provided by Edexcel (BTECs) and OCR (Nationals), dubbing them ‘of doubtful value’ and ‘less demanding’ than GCSE ICT courses.

Unsurprisingly, in the vast majority of results submitted by Academies, vocational ICT entries achieved 100% A*-Cs.

Both the case study of a student at the Harris Academy Purley and that of a teacher at Haberdashers’ Aske’s Knights Academy highlight the negative effect Academies’ ‘result-bulking’ strategies are having on students:

At the Harris Academy Purley:

‘Moira Macdonald is concerned that her daughter, like all other year 10 students at the Harris Academy Purley, near Croydon, is being given no choice but to take the sports BTEC worth two GCSEs.

‘She says that the course, for which her daughter has had to drop French GCSE, will do nothing to prepare the 15-year-old for university or her chosen career. Moreover, she says that while the BTEC’s weighting in the league tables might help the academy’s ability to improve results and therefore to claim to have “turned round” the school, in reality parents will not be able to see for themselves full details on what has driven any rise in the scores.’

Kate Pretsell, a teacher at Haberdashers’ Aske’s Knights Academy, describes what she calls the ‘pitfalls of Academy autonomy’:

‘… C/D borderline students have also been forced to give up subjects that they really enjoy in order to lever extra English and maths into their timetables.

‘The very low achievers have been relegated and feel disenfranchised beyond repair; the high-ability students are somewhat neglected too, though to a lesser extent. These seem to be some major pitfalls of Academy autonomy.’

Unsurprisingly, the freedom allowing Academies to decide which subjects and qualifications students take at GCSE level – and which they drop – was considered the most popular benefit of Academies’ greater independence, chosen by over two-thirds of principals in the survey.

‘To attack Academies for using weak vocational qualifications to improve their results might seem unfair when we know it’s also happening in mainstream schools. However, the difference is that Academies are supposed to be ‘models of excellence’ improving life chances – and at least in mainstream schools we’re able to see their ‘use’ of vocational entries,’ said Anastasia de Waal.


It’s not just the public who are in the dark about Academies’ curricula. The government is blindly bankrolling Academies, without questioning what they are doing and what they are not. The question is whether the government is simply being highly irresponsible or whether it has deliberately turned a blind eye in the interests of league table performance.


Bizarrely, the Conservatives are also blithely championing Academies on the one hand whilst seemingly knowing little about Academies’ curricula, yet on the other hand championing a vocational qualification ‘hit-list’ and academic blue-print.


The likelihood is that there are exemplary Academies with excellent curricula succeeding in the league tables on the basis of good teaching and good organisation. However, from the evidence gathered to date and in this preliminary research, it is also clear that there are Academies which dazzle in the league tables but at the expense of a solid academic education. At the moment it is impossible to know which scenario is more prevalent.

Civitas calls for a freeze of the Academies’ programme, while an evaluation is carried out on the details of Academies’ ‘success’. This evaluation must commence with an immediate investigation into results. It is very likely that Academies will become subject to Freedom of Information in the near future. However, we cannot wait for this to happen: instead Civitas is calling on the DCSF to publish a breakdown by subject and qualification of all Academies’ GCSE and equivalent results by January 2010.

‘Transparency in Academies’ results is imperative to ensuring that already disadvantaged students are not being further disadvantaged by an impoverished curriculum,’ commented Anastasia de Waal.


For more information contact Anastasia de Waal: 020 7799 6677 / 07930 354 234

Notes for Editors

i. Civitas is an independent social policy think-tank. It receives no state funding either directly or indirectly and has no links to any political party. Civitas’s education research seeks to take an objective view of educational standards in Britain. It aims to offer an improved perspective on how best to deliver equitable and high standards of education for all.

ii. The report, The secrets of Academies’ success, by Anastasia de Waal is available below.

iii. Details of survey:

  • 118 Academies were surveyed, out of which 40 Academy principals participated
  • Responses cover the following regions: North West 4, East Midlands 7, London 11, Yorkshire and the Humber 6, West Midlands 3, South West 5 , South East 4
  • The research was carried out between September and December 2009

The secrets of Academies' success

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