The Guardian reports that
Some academy schools have been accused of manipulating admissions to improve results and using covert selection methods… A number of academy chains are seemingly more focused on expanding their empires than improving their existing schools.
Should we be surprised, and is it a major problem? On the first question, no, it is exactly what we’d expect. Through manipulating admissions and expanding their empires schools gain prestige and wealth. We may prefer them to do that through improving the attainment of students, but many will naturally attempt to use all possible means. The scope for doing so revolves around how closely the Government can contract for the outcomes it wants. As Hart, Shleifer, and Vishny say in their classic paper
…the case for in-house provision is generally stronger when non-contractible cost reductions have large deleterious effects on quality, when quality innovations are unimportant, and when corruption in government procurement is a severe problem. In contrast, the case for privatization is stronger when quality-reducing cost reductions can be controlled through contract or competition, when quality innovations are important, and when patronage and powerful unions are a severe problem inside the government.
So the trade-off when allowing more autonomy to schools is between the benefits of innovation–through either cost reduction or observable quality improvements–and the costs of unobservable reductions in the quality or equity of service delivery. We can never eliminate the costs, although the Academies Commission’s report suggests ways to improve the current monitoring; nonetheless the cost-benefit analysis may still be positive. What the Commission’s report doesn’t address is the other side of the equation: the gains from innovation in education and the benefits to students. Weighing those against the costs to equity will be the real test of the academies. If most of their innovations turn out to be new ways to game the system then they will have failed. If, on the other hand, there are significant increases in the quality or cost-effectiveness of education then the gaming detected in this report may be a side-show. On the second question, the report doesn’t give us answers.
A related point, made by Shleifer, is that we need to be careful about understanding the counterfactual. It may be that some academies are always able to select better students by some means. However, the locally funded school system usually exhibits obvious segregation, too. Even if there is some selection in academies, that needs to be compared to the current system’s level of segregation rather than looking at it in isolation.