The use of vocational and non-traditional subjects may be the secret weapon that explains why academy schools outperform their non-academy state school counterparts at GCSE level, according to new analysis published on Wednesday.

The report by the National Foundation for Education Research (NFER) – Analysis of academy school performance in the 2011 and 2012 GCSEs, commissioned by the Local Government Association – found that in 2012 schools with academy status got higher average GCSE points scores and a larger proportion of pupils gaining the government's GCSE benchmark pass than local authority-maintained schools.

The research – based on pupil achievement recorded in the national pupil database – also found academy pupils made more rapid progress between key stage two and key stage four, when GCSEs are taken, than those at maintained schools.

"This effect remained, even when analysis was controlled for the length of time a school had been designated an academy and prior attainment," the authors said.

But when the NFER statisticians compared schools by excluding GCSE-equivalent results such as National Vocational Qualifications (NVQs) and focusing on GCSE examinations, they found no difference between academy and non-academy school results, and in some circumstances found that long-established academies performed worse than maintained schools once GCSE-equivalent results were stripped out.

The report's authors concluded: "This may be an indication of different examination entry policies but does indicate that academies that have been open for more than two years do appear to perform particularly well in GCSE-equivalent examinations."

GCSE equivalents include vocational qualifications – notably NVQs but including other non-traditional qualifications such as foundation diplomas, depending on how policymakers rank each qualification.

David Simmonds, chair of the Local Government Association's children and young people board, said the report suggested conversion to academy status didn't necessarily bring about improvement once GCSE equivalent results were discounted. "Councils are restlessly ambitious for all children in their local area whatever type of school they attend but have to jump through many hoops before they are allowed to intervene where there are signs of failure," Simmonds said.

"As Ofsted increases its inspection of councils' role in improving education, councils need a free hand to intervene early in struggling schools and to reassure mums and dads that their child's one chance at education will give them the best start in life."

But a Department for Education spokesman said: "The LGA is wrong. As their own report acknowledges, academies outperform local authority schools. Thousands of brilliant heads and teachers are taking advantage of the freedoms offered by academy status to drive improvement."

The analysis comes from 2012 and 2011 exam data, as the number of academies began to grow, with outstanding schools allowed to make to switch while under-performing maintained schools were in many cases forced to adopt academy status. The 2012 research looked at 1,276 secondary schools with academy status, which included 202 that had been open for more than two years. It adjusted for proportions of pupils with special educational needs, the number eligible for free school meals and the proportion speaking English as an additional language.

The report says that the success of academies on the headline measure – including vocational qualifications – "could be due to other features of academies, for example, the quality of teaching or the effectiveness of school leadership," which the research could not measure.

The research also found similar results in 2011, when it uncovered "significantly greater" improvements in results compared with non-academy schools – but that effect disappeared the following year, when there was little difference between maintained and academy schools once vocational qualifications were removed.



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