Academies and exploitation of “equivalent” qualifications

Research note

Academies and exploitation of “equivalent” qualifications


Under the previous government, all kinds of qualifications were officially designed ‘equivalent’ to GCSE A*-C grades, without any proper quality control to ascertain whether they matched a C in quality. Many of these were deemed equivalent to 4, and some even 6, GCSEs. Thus, a pupil gaining a C in English, a C in Maths, and passing a BTEC First in computing would count as having A*-Cs in 5 subjects ‘or equivalent’. It is questionable whether employers, colleges or universities paid the same regard to these qualifications as the Department for Education.


The present government are in process of curtailing this, but don’t appear to have noticed the extent to which academies exploit the ‘equivalents’ far more than other schools. Government ministers are content to use academy performance data which inflates their pupils’ achievement.


There are 269 academies with 2011 GCSE results, including those open just one year (i.e. by mid September 2010).


The average gap (for all maintained schools nationally) is 6 percentage points between 5A*-C with English and Maths GCSEs only and 5A*-C with English and Maths with equivalents (53.2% cf 59.1%).


183 academies have more than this standard gap.

141 have more than a 10 percentage gap between these figures.

In some cases it goes much higher, including 11 cases where it is 30 points or more.


This seriously distorts the attainment figures for academies, compared with all schools nationally, making the ‘with equivalents’ data very misleading. [For convenience, I will use the abbreviations 5ACem from now.]


At the most extreme, for example, one academy has 70% of pupils gaining 5ACem with equivalents, and 0% by GCSEs only. Other examples include 67/22, 49/15, and 35/4 percents.


These are the most extreme examples, but the gap is so widespread that it affects overall statistics.


The record of the major sponsors

There are 8 major sponsors, defined as those with 4 or more academies showing results for 2011 (the largest having 19). The average gap between ‘with equivalents’ and ‘GCSE only’ for their academies is 11 percentage points, virtually identical to the gap for all academies. In the worst case, it is 21 percentage points.  The largest chains have gaps of  11, 12, 12, 15 and 15. If it is the case, as a DfE representative has claimed (see report BBC News website, 3 Feb 2012) that larger sponsors move towards more academic subjects over time, this suggests they may have been guilty of even higher levels of gaming in the past.


Longer established academies

The DfE representative’s suggestion that longer established academies were less prone to ‘gaming’ with equivalents (Michael Gove’s expression) also does not hold water. If we examine all academies with 2011 results including those open for just one year (i.e. by Sept 2010), then those which had been open for at least 2, 3, 4 and 5 years, there is almost no variation between years:

Two-third of academies have more than the gap (6pp) for all maintained schools

Half have more than 10 percentage points gap.

Around 1 in 20 have 30 or more percentage points gap.


‘Floor target’

With ‘equivalents’, 39 academies are below the government’s floor target of 35% 5ACem. This is bad enough – it is 1 in 7 academies  compared with 1 in 34 schools nationally. (Omitting selective schools such as converted grammar schools and CTCs, it is about 1 in 6.)


If we take GCSE-only figures, we should allow 6 percentage points leeway because of the gap for all maintained schools nationally. In other words, let us look at how many academies fall below 29% for 5ACem (GCSEs only).  On this reckoning, 118 academies are below the floor target. Excluding selective schools from the figures, this means about half of academies would be officially failing but for their zealous use of ‘equivalents’.

For 5ACem by GCSEs only:

77 are below 25%

44 below 20%

11 below 10%


Academies with GCSE-only results which are above the national average

Only 51 academies manage to reach the national average for maintained schools of 53.2%. The majority of these are converted grammar or other selective schools.  So, apart from such selective schools, only about 10% of academies are above the national average in terms of 5ACem by GCSEs only.


Terry Wrigley (5 Feb 2012)

(See also research note on Disadvantaged Pupils)

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1 Response to Academies and exploitation of “equivalent” qualifications

  1. steve White says:

    This is truly fascinating research that exposes the original method used by the last government to prove just how well the academies were doing by using equivalents that were not really that at all. This government is now trying to expose this but is tripping itself up and showing how academies are not a magic bullet to raise standards but that the so called rise in standards was just a trick where equivalents were used, Will this come out in the press? I don’t even have to answer. Academies are failing but only failing LA schools will receive press attention.

    I am very interested in how White Hart Lane School-now Woodside High got so high up the league tables so quickly? Lets not forget this was the school me and many other parents tried to avoid sending our kids to when it was bottom of the league table not so long ago. Was it the genius of the Head Joan McVittie (now President of ASCL) or was it because of equivalent 5A-Cems calculation used? Someone in Haringey needs to find out quick because it appears that the marvelous “Aunty Joan” as she was known in Waltham Forest may be behind sponsoring the forced academies there.

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