Academy chains failing to transform education, finds Reform

23 Sep 16

The recent wave of academy schools created by the government is not having a transformative impact on education, a review has found.

The think-tank Reform said the evidence “was not clear cut” that academy chains had improved standards for children.

Since first introduced by Labour, academy schools have been the main tool for governments seeking to raise standards. Two fifths of state-educated children in England now attend an academy. While there are different forms of academies, all have greater responsibility over the curriculum, staffing and finances than other state-funded schools.

Reform assessed the progress of the academy school programme under successive governments, by surveying the chief executives of 66 academy chains, which are responsible for around 700 schools.

It found the academies created by Labour had almost certainly led to sustainable improvements in pupil outcomes. However, those created by the coalition government from 2010 to 2015 had a more variable effect, “with some lowering, some sustaining and others improving education in those schools, depending on the starting point of the school.”

Reform noted that the current Conservative government has a different approach to academies. It now expects all new academies to join chains, which are groups of two or more academies run by the same sponsor. This is because it believes this model will enable the sharing of excellence between schools and raise standards.

However, the report found academy chains have a variable impact on pupil attainment. Moreover, it was difficult to explain why this was the case, due to a lack of information and research around what academy chains do.

There was a variable picture of chain management, with some highly centralised, with others devolving more responsibility to individual schools. It also showed that most chains want to expand, irrespective of their current size.

Most agreed that their key priority was to reduce disparities in pupil attainment across their chain, which appears to confirm that they seek a role in spreading excellence. However, while many are interested in running schools that are low performing, financial and geographical constraints remain a barrier.

The report found some key problems with existing policy. First, chains are not granted enough financial autonomy over their academies. Second, the process of matching schools to chains is neither transparent or independent. This means the process is open to conflict, and also hinders competition between chains. In addition, chains are not properly incentivised to run schools that are in need of support.  

Reform called for a new approach to commissioning, funding, oversight and accountability for academy schools. It recommends that funding for academies should be allocated to the chain for them to dispense as they see fit. There should also be more robust accountability measures, as well as an independent body to be created to make commissioning decisions.

There should also be more stringent, and more generous, grants for chains that take on the responsibility of running schools that had previously failed, or find themselves in financial difficulty.

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