Publication Education and skills 19 September, 2016

Academy chains unlocked

Read the full report  

Reform’s report, 'Academy chains unlocked', presents results from the first survey of academy chain chief executives. It recommends reform to the funding and oversight of chains to raise standards across the country.

Since first introduced under Labour, academy schools have been the main way that governments have sought to raise the standard of schools. Their popularity with policymakers means that 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.

Yet the evidence that academies have improved school education is not clear cut. Labour’s academies have almost certainly led to sustainable improvements in pupil outcomes. However, the Coalition Government’s academies have had variable impact, with some lowering, some sustaining and others improving education in those schools, depending on the starting point of the school. Taken in its entirety, the evidence suggests that the recent academies are not having the transformative impact on education that was expected by government.

The Conservative Government has changed its approach to academies. It now expects all new academies to join or establish an academy chain – groups of two or more academies run by the same sponsor – believing that chains will help unleash the potential of academies to spread educational excellence across the country. Yet, as with individual academies, the evidence on academy chains shows variable impact on pupil attainment. There is a dearth of information explaining why, as no research has established a full enough picture of what academy chains do.

To address this research gap, Reform has undertaken the first survey of academy chains. The respondents were chief executives from 66 academy chains responsible for a total of around 700 academies. The results show a varied picture of chain operations, with some highly centralised and others devolving more responsibility to schools. It also shows that most chains want to expand, regardless of their current size. However, their key priority is to reduce disparities in pupil attainment across their chain, suggesting that chains want a role in spreading excellence. While many are interested in running low-performing schools, the school’s finances and geographical location remain a barrier.

Drawing on these results, along with unstructured interviews with chain chief executives, the report highlights four problems with current policy. First, academy chains are not routinely granted enough financial autonomy over their academies. Second, the process of matching schools to chains is not transparent or independent, and is therefore open to conflict. Third, this opacity is hindering competition between chains. Fourth, chains are not effectively incentivised to run schools that are in need of support.

Reform recommends a new approach to the funding, commissioning, oversight and accountability arrangements for academy schools to help them reach their potential. It recommends that funding for academies be allocated to the chain for them to dispense as they see fit, alongside more robust accountability measures. Commissioning decisions should be taken by an independent body, based on transparent criteria, and with all chains able to put themselves forward to run schools. There should be more stringent, and more generous, grants for chains that decide to run schools that have previously failed, find themselves in financial difficulties, or are otherwise undesirable to run.

Reform’s recommendations are aimed at helping the Government achieve its ambition of improving education for all. Without a rejuvenation of this flagship government programme, academies will not have the impact they were hoped to have. The academy chain survey results can be found in Annex B of the main report.

Reform recommends a new approach to the funding, commissioning, oversight and accountability arrangements for academy schools to help them reach their potential.

Media coverage

Amy Finch, Head of Education, appeared on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, arguing that paying school governors would allow professionalisation of governance structures and could fill skills gaps. The Times published an article highlighting the report’s recommendation to pay school governors. The Daily Express also covered this recommendation. Public Finance published an article examining the success of different academy schools – evidence that the report had covered. The Times Educational Supplement covered the report’s recommendation that revenue funding for academies be allocated directly to academy chains. Schools Week led with an article citing the report’s recommendation that responsibility for academy accountability should be taken away from government, and placed with a new independent schools regulator in a bid to tackle potential conflicts of interest.

Opinion pieces

Amy Finch wrote an article for Schools Week in which she called for greater transparency in the commissioning of schools. Co-author Ben Dobson, Researcher at Reform, wrote an article for Prospect Magazine, arguing that the Government could get more from academy schools. Ben also wrote a piece for Public Finance arguing that school funding reform could empower academy chains, and help achieve excellence everywhere. Co-author Elaine Fischer, Research Assistant at Reform, wrote an op-ed for SecEd arguing that the Education Secretary must not u-turn on no longer requiring parent governors.