Academies and free schools - Education Contents

1  Introduction

Our inquiry

1. Academies are independent state schools that are funded directly by the Government and not through a local authority. The academies programme began under the last Government as a means to address chronically underperforming schools, with the first such schools established in 2002. Their number grew slowly: in July 2010 (the end of the academy reporting year) there were 203 academies in England.[1] The Coalition Government made the extension of the academies programme a flagship policy, increasing the numbers by encouraging and sometimes compelling underperforming schools to become sponsored academies and enabling all schools to convert to academy status, either on their own (for schools judged by Ofsted to be outstanding or good) or as part of a wider academy trust or with a sponsor. As a result of this policy change, by December 2014 there were 4,344 open academies, including over half of all secondary schools in England.[2]

2. A second major policy priority at the Department for Education (DfE) from May 2010 was the creation of free schools, which are a specific type of academy set up and run independently of local authorities, based on proposals by groups of educators, parents, charities and others. Twenty-four free schools opened in September 2011. By 28 October 2014 there were 252 open free schools, with a further 111 opening in 2015 and beyond. Of those already open, 107 are secondary schools, 94 primary schools, 37 'all through' and 14 for those aged 16-19 years.[3]

3. The growth in the number of academies and free schools and the significance of their impact on the educational landscape in England led us to decide that it would be timely to undertake a major inquiry into this area. We therefore put out a call for evidence on the following aspects of the academies and free schools programme:

·  The effectiveness of academisation in narrowing the gap for disadvantaged children, and what further steps should be taken within the academies system to bring about a transformational impact on student outcomes;

·  The process for approving, compelling and establishing academies and free schools, including working with sponsors;

·  The role of the Secretary of State in intervening in and supporting failing academies, and how this role will work as the programme expands;

·  The functions and responsibilities in relation to academies and free schools of local authorities and other organisations operating between the Secretary of State and individual schools; what these functions and responsibilities should be; and what gaps there are in support for schools at this level;

·  What role academy chains play or should play in the new school landscape; how accountable they are; and what issues they raise with regard to governance arrangements;

·  The appropriateness of academy status for primary schools and what special factors apply; and what evidence there is that academy status can bring value for money either for individual primary schools or for the system as a whole;

·  What alternatives to sponsored academy status should be offered to failing primary schools.

4. We received around 140 written submissions from a wide range of witnesses and held ten sessions of oral evidence, hearing from nearly fifty individuals, representing many different organisations. The memorandum submitted by the DfE failed to address our terms of reference and instead presented a sustained paean of praise to the success of the policy. In consequence, we called DfE officials as witnesses to put on the record facts about the programme and how it was run. We supplemented these formal procedures with an informal seminar with experts which helped shape our inquiry, and with visits to Hull and to Boston and New Orleans in the US to learn more directly from the experiences of those involved in transforming schools. Outline programmes for the visits are annexed to this Report.[4]

5. We have benefitted from the expertise and assistance of two special advisers appointed specifically for this inquiry (Professor Becky Francis and Professor Stephen Machin) and of our standing adviser on education matters (Professor Alan Smithers).[5]

6. The DfE Permanent Secretary, Chris Wormald, told the Committee of Public Accounts (PAC) in November 2014 that "In the early days of [the expansion of the academy programme], the Government was taking the view that what it needed to do was get a lot of things going and then evaluate what was happening, and build on what was good and stop what was not so good".[6] Our inquiry set out in a positive spirit to examine the current situation with regard to academies and any need for change. We agree that many good things are happening but now is the time to take stock and make any necessary adjustments. We expect the DfE to engage positively with our report in that spirit.


7. Academies can be divided into two types: sponsored and converters. There is a separate, smaller category of newly established schools which includes free schools, University Technical Colleges and studio schools.[7]

8. Sponsored academies are typically previously underperforming schools which have been compelled to convert: of the 1,112 sponsored academies in August 2014 93% had been formed from underperforming maintained schools.[8] The process involves a sponsor setting up an academy trust which then signs a funding agreement with the Secretary of State for Education on how the academy must operate. Sponsors are responsible for the finances and performance of their school or schools, selecting the governing body and recruiting the headteacher. They are not required to provide additional funding of their own and will receive a grant from the DfE for pre-opening costs of up to £150,000 for a sponsored secondary school or up to £110,000 for a primary or special school.[9]

9. An academy trust may operate a single school but may also be responsible for a chain of schools. The DfE uses the term academy chain to describe groups of three or more schools. In June 2014, there were 192 chains of three or more academies with a single sponsor.[10] In June 2014, the largest chain had 74 schools, meaning that it oversaw more schools than some local authorities, but the majority are much smaller.[11] Dominic Herrington, then Director of the Academies Group, DfE, told us in February 2014:

    A really interesting thing that has happened in academies over the last year is that the fastest growing type of academy sponsor is a school. We have 557 academy sponsors. The majority of those are schools—outstanding converters sponsoring other schools. The number of sponsored academies in the largest 10 chains is actually quite small as a proportion of the total number of academies. It is only about a third of the proportion of all sponsored academies. The picture that is emerging for us is not one of lots of big chains but one of lots of small [chains] sponsored by other schools.[12]

10. Chains of schools may operate as multi-academy trusts (MATs), where the trust has a single funding agreement with the Secretary of State and supplementary agreements for the individual schools within the trust. All academies in the MAT are run by a single board of directors. Although the MAT may decide to delegate some functions to school-level governing bodies, the MAT remains accountable for the schools and can take all decisions on how the schools are run.

11. It is possible for academies to enter into a different type of grouping known as an umbrella trust, whereby each school converts separately to academy status, with its own funding agreement, but they then come together to share governance and services.

12. Information supplied by the DfE in January 2014 shows the number of schools in England in a MAT or an Umbrella Trust.[13] It can be seen that the majority of MATs and UTs are very small (fewer than five schools) but well over half the academies in MATs are in a chain of more than five schools.[14]
Multi Academy Trusts Umbrella Trusts
Number of schools in MAT Number of MATsNumber of schools Number of schools in UT Number of UTsNumber of schools
1187 1871 00
2243 4862 510
3111 3333 39
465 2604 14
5+137 13565+ 547
Total2622 Total 70

Source: DfE

13. The NAO found that the rate at which maintained schools are becoming sponsored academies has increased: "the Department opened over three times as many sponsored academies in 2012/13 as 2011/12 [… and] opened a further 376 sponsored academies by the end of 2013/14".[15] From the start of academic year 14/15 to December 2014, an additional 154 sponsored academies had opened.[16]

14. Nevertheless, the rapid growth in the number of academies over the last four years has been fuelled mainly by converters: schools voluntarily becoming academies. These schools also have a funding agreement with the Secretary of State and are formally established as academy trusts. Unlike sponsored academies, they are previously outstanding or good schools, typically with low numbers of disadvantaged children amongst their intakes. Twenty-nine schools converted in September 2010. By the end of July 2011, 529 converter academies were open, followed by a further 1,058 between August 2011 and July 2012 and 731 between August 2012 and July 2013.[17] By 1 December 2014 a total of 3,062 schools had converted to academy status as part of the Coalition programme.[18] This is greatly in excess of the DfE's prediction at the time of the Academies Bill in 2010 that 200 schools would convert each year in the first few years of the programme.[19]

15. Whilst secondary schools led the way in adopting academy status, the number of primary schools which are academies (2,299) now exceeds the number of secondaries (1,884).[20] As a proportion of all schools in England, however, academies constitute 13% of primaries compared to 60% of secondaries.[21]

1   NAO, Academies and maintained schools: Oversight and intervention, HC (2014-15) 721 Back

2   DfE academy release December 2014 Back

3   List of all free schools: open or in pre-opening stage, DfE, 28 October 2014.Academies also include two further types of new schools, University Technical Colleges and studio schools, which we do not examine in this report but which are explained in footnote 7 below.  Back

4   See Annex A and Annex B Back

5   Professor Becky Francis, Professor of Education and Social Justice, King's College London, declared interests as a member of the Labour party, as a member of Amnesty International and in the form of consultation with the Sutton Trust on potential research project on academies. Professor Stephen Machin, Professor of Economics at University College London and Research Director of the Centre for Economic Performance at the London School of Economics, declared an interest as a member of Low Pay Commission (BIS) until April 2014. Professor Alan Smithers, Director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research, University of Buckingham, declared no interests relevant to the inquiry. Back

6   Oral evidence taken before the taken before the Public Accounts Committee on 17 November 2014, HC (2014-15) 735, Q171 Back

7   University Technical Colleges are academies offering 14 to 19 year olds technical education in one or two specialisms; studio schools are also aimed at this age group and are small institutions emphasising skills needed for employment. Back

8   NAO, Academies and maintained schools: Oversight and intervention, HC (2014-15) 721, p30 Back

9 (accessed on 19 January 2015) Back

10   Chain effects: the impact of academy chains on low income students, Merryn Hutchings, Becky Francis and Robert De Vries, Sutton Trust (July 2014). Back

11   Hutchings, Francis & deVries (2014) Back

12   Qq 10, 103 Back

13   Department for Education (AFS0112) para 8 Back

14   The DfE supplied a similar table in February 2013 which showed over 200 schools in UTs. Since then the DfE has adopted a tighter definition of umbrella trusts for the purposes of its management information.  Back

15   NAO, Academies and maintained schools: Oversight and intervention, HC (2014-15) 721, p30 Back

16   DfE academies update December 2014 Back

17   Academies Annual Report 2012-13, DfE Back

18   DfE academies update December 2014 Back

19   Academies Bill- Impact Assessment, DfE (May 2010) Back

20   Information supplied by the DfE. Figures correct as of 1 December 2014. Back

21   Report of HMCI of Education, Children's Services and Skills 2013/14: Schools (hereafter Ofsted Annual Report on Schools 2013/14), p.7 Back

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Prepared 27 January 2015