Academies and free schools - Education Contents


The landscape of schooling in England has been transformed over the last five years. Academy sponsorship has encouraged and facilitated the contribution of individuals not previously involved in education provision and laid down a challenge to maintained schools to improve or face replacement by the insurgent academy model. The development of outstanding Multi Academy Trusts like Ark and Harris offers an alternative system to the one overseen by local authorities while the unified Ofsted inspection regime and published performance data generally allows fair judgement of comparative performance.

There is a complex relationship between attainment, autonomy, collaboration and accountability. Current evidence does not allow us to draw conclusions on whether academies in themselves are a positive force for change. This is partly a matter of timing but more information is needed on the performance of individual academy chains. Most academy freedoms are in fact available to all schools and we recommend that curriculum freedoms are also extended to maintained schools.

We welcome the appointment of the regional schools commissioners as a step towards making oversight more local again, but any lasting solution will need to be more local still and develop effective working with local authorities. Local authorities cannot embrace their new role as champions of local children, families and employers, rather than of school themselves, without codification of their roles and responsibilities in relation to academies.

The Education Funding Agency must enhance the transparency and accountability of its monitoring of academy funding agreements. Together with the RSCs, it must deal effectively with parental complaints about academies. We also recommend that its regulatory and funding roles should be split in order to restore public confidence.

Our report examines concerns regarding the oversight of sponsors and chains. The DfE should publish data on the performance of individual schools and trusts. It should set out the process and criteria by which sponsors are authorised and matched with schools, as well as the process and criteria for reviewing and renewing funding agreements. The length of these agreements should also be reviewed, with a view to reducing the model agreement to five years. Conflicts of interest in trusts are a real issue and the DfE should take further steps to strengthen governance in trusts.

The DfE should be more open and transparent about the accountability and monitoring system for chains and the criteria used to pause their expansion. It should create a mechanism for schools to be able to leave academy chains where appropriate, and it should publish a protocol for dealing with the failure of a large chains and for how individual schools will be treated when a chain can no longer run them. Ofsted should be given the power to inspect academy chains.

There is at present no convincing evidence of the impact of academy status on attainment in primary schools. The DfE should commission such research as a matter of urgency. The primary sector benefits more from collaborative structures, whether with or without academy status. Maintained schools in federations should be eligible for funding to assist collaboration through the Primary Chains Grant.

We agree with Ofsted that it is too early to draw conclusions on the quality of education provided by free schools or their broader system impact. The DfE should make clear how the competition for free school funding is decided and the relative weight it gives to each of innovation, basic need, deprivation and parental demand. The DfE should ensure that local authorities are informed of any proposal to open a free school in their area. It should also collect statistical information on the intake of free schools and monitor the effect of newly created schools on the intake and attainment of neighbouring schools.

Academisation is not always successful nor is it the only proven alternative for a struggling school. Both academies and state maintained schools have a role to play in system-wide improvement by looking outwards and accepting challenge in order to ensure high quality education for all children. Of the 21,500 state-funded schools in England, 17,300 are maintained schools and 4,200 are academies. The Government should spell out its vision for the future of schools in England, including the structures and underpinning principles that will be in place in the next five to ten years. Any future government will have to examine whether the existing dual system of oversight and intervention is beneficial.

The DfE needs to be far more open about the implementation of the academies programme: it has much to gain from transparency and clarity over its processes. The conversion of schools to academy status has been exceptionally fast by international standards. We recommend that the DfE review the lessons of the wholesale conversion of the secondary sector to inform any future expansion.

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Prepared 27 January 2015