What is an academy?

Academies are state schools that are not controlled by the local authority. Academies receive funding directly from the Government and are run by an academy trust. Schools controlled and funded by the local authority are called maintained schools.

Academies have more control than maintained schools over some aspects of delivering education. For example, they do not have to follow the national curriculum and can set their own term dates. However, academies have to follow the same rules on admissions, special educational needs and exclusions as other state schools, and their students sit the same exams.

Some academies are supported by sponsors such as existing academy trusts, businesses, universities, other schools, faith groups or voluntary groups.

Multi-academy trusts (MATs) are not-for-profit companies that run more than one academy. Not all academies are part of a multi-academy trust.

Some schools choose to become academies. A high-performing school that has chosen to become an academy is termed a ‘converter school’. Underperforming schools have often joined sponsored multi-academy trusts. If a school is rated inadequate by the schools inspector (Ofsted) then the secretary of state must make an academy order to enable it to become an academy “as swiftly as possible”. Academies are also inspected by Ofsted. If an academy is judged inadequate by Ofsted it can be required to join a different MAT, or to join a MAT if it is a standalone academy.

What is the background to the proposals?

Academies were first introduced under the 1997–2010 Labour Government. The Learning and Skills Act 2000 made provision for the creation of ‘city academies’. These were then renamed academies under the Education Act 2002. Academies built on the concept of city technical colleges, which were introduced by the then Conservative Government in the 1980s.

The 2010–2015 Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition Government expanded the academies policy. It introduced legislation allowing all schools to become academies. This included primary schools, special schools and pupil referral units, which had not been eligible before. In January 2010, there were 202 academy schools and a total of 192,640 pupils attending academies. By January 2015, there were 4,722 academies and 2,742,394 pupils attending academies.

From 2015 onwards, consecutive Conservative policies have continued to promote academies. The March 2016 budget announced for the first time an intention to turn all state-funded schools in England into academies. The goal was for every primary and secondary school to be an academy, or be in the process of becoming an academy, by 2020. An education white paper also published in March 2016 said that a key part of this policy would involve “encouraging the best schools to play an enhanced role by forming and managing MATs, sharing the excellence they have built in their own schools”. The Conservative Party manifesto ahead of the 2017 general election included commitments to encourage more organisations to sponsor academies or to establish new free schools, a type of academy.

The Conservative Party manifesto ahead of the 2019 general election said it would “intervene in schools where there is entrenched underperformance” and would “continue to build more free schools”.

In the 2020/21 academic year there were 9,444 academies and 4,591,865 pupils attending academies.

What does the 2022 white paper propose?

On 28 March 2022, the Government published the ‘Opportunity for All’ education white paper. Among other reforms, the Government proposes to deliver “a fully trust led system with a single regulatory approach”. It said this would “drive up standards through the growth of strong trusts and the establishment of new ones, including trusts established by local authorities”. It has set a target date of 2030 for all schools to be part of, or in the process of joining, a MAT.

In the white paper, the Government emphasises that, under the plans, all schools would be part of a “strong” trust. The Government sets out that the strength of a trust will be determined by assessing the quality of the education it delivers, the rate at which it improves standards, whether it has effective governance, if its finances are managed effectively and if it recruits and retains good teachers and leaders.

The Government argues that multi-academy trusts are better than standalone trusts and maintained schools because they can “share good practice, support their schools to improve, and provide opportunities for staff”. It says that larger MATs, of 10 or more schools, can achieve economies of scale, enabling them to be “financially stable, maximise the impact of a well-supported workforce and drive school improvement”. In addition, it argues, “MATs can pool resource and expertise to benefit children with SEND [special educational needs or disability]”.

As part of delivering the MAT policy, the white paper’s proposals include:

  • consulting on plans to move schools that have received two consecutive ‘requires improvement’ or ‘inadequate’ ratings from Ofsted into “strong trusts”;
  • a new multi-academy trust chief executive officer development programme for established leaders, such as executive headteachers and senior staff in academy trusts;
  • opening new age 16–19 free schools in areas of need;
  • encouraging MATs to run a minimum of 10 schools, to achieve advantages of scale;
  • allowing local authorities to establish new multi-academy trusts where few strong trusts exist;
  • bringing forward legislation to ensure that statutory freedoms and protections that apply to church and faith-maintained schools also apply to academies with a religious character, as well as providing financial support for religious authorities to establish trusts;
  • combining new and existing requirements on academy trusts, currently set out in legislation and funding agreements, into statutory academy trust standards, including new statutory intervention powers;
  • continuing to allow trusts to be their own admissions administrators but consulting on a new backstop power for local authorities to direct trusts to admit children if necessary;
  • setting school budgets using the national funding formula to set each school’s budget directly, without local adjustment; and
  • introducing new powers enabling the secretary of state to bring a local authority’s maintained schools into the academy system where a local authority has requested it.

What is the evidence on multi-trust academies improving standards in schools?

The Government argues that requiring all schools to become part of a strong MAT would increase standards. In the document ‘The Case for a Fully Trust Led System’, published alongside the white paper, the Government argues that MATs have a strong record in improving standards in underperforming schools.

Data on Ofsted ratings do not show that schools in MATs have better ratings than other types of school. However, the Government emphasises that many schools joined MATs because they were underperforming, therefore they start from a lower base. The Government highlights that “more than 7 out of 10 sponsored academies are now rated good or outstanding compared to about 1 in 10 of the local authority maintained schools they replaced”.

On academic results, the picture is mixed. The percentage of students at key stage 2 (ages 7–11) reaching the expected standard in reading, writing and maths is higher in schools in the top 25% of MATs than the top 25% of maintained schools. However, more students in the bottom 75% of maintained schools than students in the bottom 75% of MAT schools achieved the expected standard. There was a similar pattern in secondary schools and for pupils eligible for pupil premium (meeting certain criteria for deprivation).

Non-government research also shows a mixed picture on results. Research published by the Education Policy Institute in 2017 concluded that while MATs accounted for many of the highest performing school groups at primary and secondary level, MATs were also over-represented amongst the lowest performing school groups. Research by education charity the Sutton Trust found that MATs also produced mixed results for disadvantaged pupils. It found that in 2017, disadvantaged pupils in 12 out of 58 academy chains had attainment above the national average for disadvantaged pupils (excluding those in special schools or other specialist settings), including three chains which were substantially above that average. However, 38 of the 58 had attainment below the mainstream average, including eight which were “well below average”.

The Government says this variation in performance is the reason it emphasises that schools will join a “strong” trust. In the white paper, the Government acknowledges that “on average, the poorest performing MATs do worse than the poorest performing LAs [local authorities]”. To counteract this, it says it will “take a single regulatory approach to academy trusts and provide parents with assurance about the expectations against which trusts are held to account”.

In response to the white paper, several organisations also released research arguing against the effectiveness of academies. The National Education Union, a union for people working in education, said its analysis suggested that schools that join MATs were less likely to improve and more likely to fall back than those that did not. It found that primary schools that were not academies were more likely to retain an “outstanding” grade from Ofsted in inspections than other types of schools. According to the research, 30% of “outstanding” primary schools under the local authority kept their “outstanding” status, compared with 7% of primary schools in MATs. For secondary schools that were local authority maintained, half kept their rating of “outstanding” over two inspections. The same proportion of secondary former LA schools that joined a MAT kept their status.

The National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) criticised the Government’s claim that large MATs can manage their finances more effectively than other types of structure. NFER said that the Government’s argument was “difficult to evidence” because families of schools are able to pool their finances, which means it is “difficult to observe the real circumstances of an individual MAT school and compare that with single trusts or maintained schools”. Therefore, it argues, the Government is not “comparing like with like”.

What parliamentary scrutiny has there been of the plans?

Presenting the white paper to the House of Commons, Secretary of State for Education Nadhim Zahawi said evidence showed that “well-managed, tightly managed families of schools are those that can consistently deliver a high-quality and inclusive education”. Therefore, the Government aimed “for every child to benefit from being taught in a family of schools, with their school in a strong—I underline the word ‘strong’—multi-academy trust or with plans to join or form one”.

Responding to the plans, Shadow Secretary of State for Education Bridget Phillipson said that Labour wanted “every parent to be able to send their child to a great local state school, which is why we would launch the most ambitious school improvement plan for a generation, focusing on what happens inside the school, not the name above the door”.

Mr Zahawi’s statement was repeated in the House of Lords. In response, Shadow Spokesperson for Education Lord Watson of Invergowrie argued that the white paper left questions on the MAT proposals unanswered. He argued that it was unclear whether the Government would force all schools to become academies. In response, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Department for Education Baroness Barron said that the Government would consider all options:

We are keen and have worked very hard in this white paper to try to make sure everyone involved in the schools system feels they are part of this journey. We are considering all options, and we will engage with the sector to deliver a fully trust-led system.

In addition to questions about the proposed changes in relationship between trusts and central government, Lord Watson asked about smaller and geographically dispersed MATs:

The premise that trusts are the best way of organising schools is asserted but not proved. Occasionally, data is cherry picked. I ask the minister how many trusts do not contain 7,500 pupils, which is said to be the benchmark for efficiency and effectiveness. How does the DfE [Department for Education] propose to deal with the many trusts that are not that size? Talk of a family of schools quickly comes up against a basic problem: that of geography. How can you have a family of schools scattered the length of the country?

Liberal Democrat Spokesperson for Education Lord Storey argued that the quality of teaching was more important than the structure of the school. He said that to ensure parents’ voices are heard, all schools in MATs should have a governing body. He also said that salaries for some MAT chief executives were too high, and that although academies do not have to teach the full national curriculum the Government should require all schools to teach certain parts of the curriculum.

Cover image by jcomp on freepik.