1. 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 MAT.

Underperforming schools have often joined sponsored MATs. Maintained schools judged by Ofsted to be inadequate are required to become academies under the Education and Adoption Act 2016. If a school is judged to be ‘coasting’ (not making necessary improvements) then the relevant regional director can intervene to support the school. The government’s policy is that “there will be a presumption in favour of issuing the maintained school with an academy order so that it may join a strong multi-academy trust unless exceptional circumstances apply”.

Academies are inspected by Ofsted. If an academy that is part of a MAT is judged inadequate by Ofsted it can be required to join a different MAT. If it is a standalone academy it can be required to join a MAT.

2. How has policy on academies evolved?

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 2010–15 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 approximately 192,000 pupils attending academies. By January 2015 there were 4,722 academies and 2.7 million pupils attending academies.

From 2015 onwards consecutive Conservative policies 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. The Conservative Party manifesto ahead of the 2019 general election said it would “intervene in schools where there is entrenched underperformance”. The Conservative government since 2019 has continued to support the growth of academies and MATs.

In the 2022/23 academic year there were 10,176 academies and 4.9 million pupils attending academies. This equates to 41.6% of all schools and 54.4% of pupils.

3. What is the current government’s policy on academies?

In March 2022 the government published the ‘Opportunity for all’ education white paper. Among other reforms, the government proposed 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 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 said that under the plans all schools would be part of a “strong” trust. The strength of a trust would be determined by assessing the quality of the education it delivered, the rate at which it improved standards, whether it had effective governance, if its finances were managed effectively and if it recruited and retained good teachers and leaders.

The government argued that MATs were better than standalone trusts and maintained schools because they could “share good practice, support their schools to improve, and provide opportunities for staff”. It said that larger MATs, of 10 or more schools, could also 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 argued that “MATs can pool resource and expertise to benefit children with SEND [special educational needs or disability]”.

The Schools Bill [HL], introduced in May 2022, contained several measures relating to academies. Many of these concerned the regulation of academies and power of intervention. However, in December 2022 the education secretary, Gillian Keegan, said in evidence to the House of Commons Education Committee that the bill would not make further progress because the government was prioritising other areas for parliamentary time. Ms Keegan said, however, that the government remained “committed to the very many important objectives that underpinned the bill”.

In the government’s subsequent ‘Academies regulatory and commissioning review’, published in March 2023, the government reiterated that it wanted “to ensure all pupils and schools benefit from being in a high-quality multi-academy trust”. It said that while it would not introduce legislation to replicate clauses on standards in the dropped bill, it would “take forward their intent” in its commissioning approach.

4. What is the evidence on MATs improving standards in schools?

The government has argued 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 March 2022 white paper, the government argued that MATs have a strong record in improving standards in underperforming schools. It said:

If all pupils did as well in reading, writing and maths at key stage two in 2019 as pupils in the MAT performing at the 75th percentile of MATs on this measure, national performance would have been eight percentage points higher at 73%. At the 90th percentile this would have been 79%.

Data on Ofsted ratings does not show that schools in MATs have better ratings than other types of school, according to information published in the same paper. However, the government emphasised that many schools joined MATs because they were underperforming; therefore they started from a lower base. The government highlighted that “more than seven out of 10 sponsored academies were now rated good or outstanding compared to about one in 10 of the local authority-maintained schools they replaced”.

On academic results the picture is mixed, according to figures in the same government paper. The percentage of pupils achieving the expected standard in reading, writing and maths was, on the whole, slightly higher in maintained schools than in MATs. For example, the median proportion of students reaching the expected standard was 67% for maintained schools and 65% for MATs. However, MATs had a greater variation in performance. The higher performing MATs performed better than the better performing maintained schools, and the lower performing MATs performed worse than the worst-performing maintained schools.

Other 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 among 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 that were substantially above that average. However, 38 of the 58 had attainment below the mainstream average, including eight that were “well below average”.

The government has said this variation in performance is the reason it emphasises that schools would join a “strong” trust. In the white paper, the government acknowledged that “on average, the poorest performing MATs do worse than the poorest performing LAs [local authorities]”. To counteract this, it said it would “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 2022 white paper, several other organisations released research arguing against the effectiveness of academies. The National Education Union (NEU) said its analysis suggested that schools that joined 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. However, there was no difference between local authority secondary schools and secondary schools that had joined a MAT keeping their “outstanding” rating: it was just over half for both LA schools and MAT schools that had been a local authority school.

The National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) also 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 argued, the government is not “comparing like with like”.

5. Why have more schools not joined MATs?

Some schools and teachers have resisted becoming academies. A 2022 article by the NEU states why it disagrees with academisation. In addition to its view that MATs do not improve performance, the union has set out further objections to schools joining MATs. Its arguments include:

  • After joining a MAT, schools can be transferred to a different MAT without their consent. The union states that if a school joins a local chain it could be transferred to a larger, national chain.
  • Schools that are part of MATs are not required to have parents on their governing board, and the MAT governing body has the power to abolish local boards, appoint and remove trustees, and change the trust’s articles of association.
  • Academies are more likely than other schools to employ teachers without qualified teacher status.
  • Academies lose support from the local authority including SEND support, school improvement, and speech and language therapy services.
  • Teachers are paid less in academies than in maintained schools, while MAT CEOs and headteachers are paid more and their pay is growing.

A 2019 Ofsted analysis based on interviews with people who work in MATs found staff identified several positives and negatives of being part of a MAT. Advantages included:

  • improved back-office support enabling leaders to spend more time on ‘instructional leadership’ rather than finance, administration and HR
  • economies of scale in contracts such as cleaning and catering
  • challenge and support offered by the MAT, leading directly to school improvement
  • sharing data with other schools and moderating it together
  • support from peers and MAT central staff
  • opportunities for collaboration, such as shared planning and examples of good practice
  • workforce improvements such as training, opportunities for progression, recruitment and leadership support

Drawbacks identified by staff interviewed by Ofsted included:

  • a proportion of the school’s budget being paid to the MAT, with the school not being confident of receiving commensurate benefits
  • centralisation and loss of decision-making power
  • slower decision-making
  • perceived pressure on MATs to expand and concern about how this could impact individual schools
  • difficulties sharing good practice because of schools not being located close together or having different characteristics

Cover image by evening_tao on Freepik.