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Head of Oasis Academy Brightstowe Matt Butler has been receiving plaudits for his school's dramatic improvement in its GCSE results. The former Portway School, now run as an academy by the Oasis Educational Trust, has seen the percentage of pupils getting five A* to C grades at GCSE increase from 30 per cent to 62 per cent in the past year. These results include the important maths and English qualifications.
Richard Garner writing a glowing tribute in last week's Independent describes the turn-around as "remarkable" and a "dramatic improvement."
Head Matt Butler - a former British Airways executive - mentions in the Independent article that there have been some challenges convincing some within the local community of the value of the Oasis approach, but that the school is gradually gaining favour locally.
Critics of the academy model - which sees private or charitable groups take over the running of local schools on a non fee-paying basis - accuse the schools of failing to offer a truly comprehensive education to all pupils. A recent report by The Academies Commission states that many such schools are breaching government guidelines in their selection process and thereby subtly excluding more challenging pupils. Methods used include:
- arranging “social” events for prospective parents instead of direct interviews with parents (which are prohibited by the government)
- seeking further information about the family and pupil beyond that set out in the government's regulations
"Such practices" according to the Commission, "can enable schools to select pupils from more privileged families where parents have the requisite cultural capital to complete [forms] in ways that will increase their child’s chances.”
In addition, academies nationally have higher-than-average rates of pupil expulsion. The Department of Education's own statistics reveal that academies permanently exclude pupils at more than twice the rate of local authority secondary schools.
Oasis Brightstowe follows this trend of above-average permanent exclusions. According to a Freedom of Information request, and as reported on the site Anti Academies Alliance, In 2009-10, the school excluded 4 pupils - 0.82% of the student body. This compares with a national rate across non-academies of 0.14%.
The government's own statistics reveal that permanent exclusions are carried out disproportionately on certain groups of pupils:
- The permanent exclusion rate for boys is approximately 4 times higher than that for girls.
- Pupils with SEN statements are round 8 times more likely to be permanently excluded than those pupils with no SEN.
- Children who are eligible for free school meals are around 4 times more likely to receive a permanent exclusion than children who are not eligible for free school meals.
These facts, it is alleged, contribute to the success of academies, since they tend to not only manipulate the admissions process but also more readily exclude troublesome working-class boys with learning or behaviour needs.
It is further claimed that pupils receiving free school meals tend to under-achieve in academies at GCSE level.
Against the critics, it could be argued that the practice of excluding is one of the key factors in achieving academic success for the majority, and should not be seen as a failure of the academy system.
Having worked for a short period of time in a challenging Bristol primary school, I have seen first hand the disruptive effect of violent pupils on the ability of other pupils to learn. In one primary class, there were up to four class evacuations per day as out-of-control pupils kicked, spat and punched each other at will. There is no doubt in my mind, as a casual visitor to the school, that the dysfunction of these pupils was being "managed" at the expense of the majority, whose education was being ruined by the hard-core troubled pupils.
When I asked why these pupils were still attending the school, I was told that exclusions were financially costly and that they damaged the professional reputation of the head teacher.
It could be argued that the academies have at least grasped the nettle and are choosing not to allow the violent minority to damage the learning outcomes of the majority. Should they be criticised for this approach?
The government-initiated 5th annual report on academies by Price Waterhouse Cooper concludes that:
“there is insufficient evidence to make a definitive judgement about the Academies as a model for school improvement.”
In the academic year before Portway School converted to an academy, only 16% of students gained five or more A* to C grades at GCSE. The current figure of the new Oasis Academy Brightstowe is 62%. As reported on this blog, back in 2008, head of Oasis Learning Steve Chalke made a bold prediction about the new school:
Was Steve Chalke right, or is the jury still out on academies?
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