Searching for the Academies Standards Effect: The Bigfoot Phenomenon

The recent Queen’s speech heralded the newly elected Conservative administration’s willingness to now enforce academisation upon what essentially remains of the national non-academised state-funded school estate. The renewed vigour with which the English academies programme (EAP) is being prosecuted is justified to the public on multiple grounds, at the foreground of which is the manufacture thorough ubiquitous political rhetoric of a philosophy of crisis thinking vis-à-vis education (Francis, 2014; Gunter and McGinty, 2014) and that the academies policy is evidence based (Gorard, 2005,2014; Beckett, 2007). In simple- speak, we the public, are lead to believe that the English school system is in a state of peril and dereliction and that the only remedy is for schools to academise and the sooner the better. Many critics however assert that the policy is ideologically based (Yandell, 2009; Wrigley and Kalambouka, 2013) and there is a substantial body of literature devoted to contesting the underpinning and unstated policy motivations and rationale. Since the introduction of EAP by New Labour, any improvements causally brought about in academy school standards by academisation seem to have been particularly resistant to unqualified discovery. 15 years on and 4675 academies later (DfE, 2015), if “working” is taken to mean a (significant)
improvement in standards as measured by Key Stage 4 results, the answer to the obvious question, “Does academisation work for secondary schools?” may lead us to consider whether we are in fact Bigfoot territory. Sightings and contemporary stories of the existence of Bigfoot over many decades have spawned multiple unscientific and much fewer scientific quests to fully and finally establish the existence of such a creature. As yet, whilst the cultural and sociological phenomenon of certainly Bigfoot persists the actual existence of the creature itself remains undetermined beyond all reasonable doubt (Glickman, 1998). In this sense, the Bigfoot phenomenon appears rather analogous with the academisation standards effect for two reasons: firstly, we don’t know whether the effect exists but hasn’t been found yet, mainly because there are faults with the methods that have been mobilised to locate it or secondly and alternatively, that the locating methods are fit for purpose but that rather there is no effect to reveal.

This paper seeks to achieve through a systematic review of the empirical literature whether the academy standards effect can be reliably determined to exist, and if so in what guise and gait and with what caveats. It also seeks to document the considerable problematic contextual, philosophical and methodological features that have been encountered during the review of what has been found to be an unexpectedly complex and confounded evidential landscape. These considerations may ultimately facilitate the conclusion that indeed, as with Bigfoot, as at the time of writing, an improvement in school standards remains in the mind of wishful thinkers and believers.