Are academy chains harming the progress of disadvantaged pupils?

Henry Stewart's picture
Contact: Henry Stewart (07870 682442,

The Sutton Trust report Chains Effects 2015, published today, makes clear that there are serious problems with many of the academy chains: "far from providing a solution to disadvantage, a few chains may be exacerbating it".

The government, and its supporters in the media, are likely to focus on the small number of high-performing chains that the report finds are performing better than schools overall. However these represent less than one in five of the sponsored academies that were included in the study. Even the strong results of these few chains may, as the report suggests, be explained by the fact that most are London focused and benefiting from the better performance of London schools.

The government plans to convert "inadequate" and “coasting” schools to sponsored academies. Yet this report reveals that 15% of sponsored academies covered by this report are currently rated "inadequate" by Ofsted (compared to 6% for secondary schools overall) and that no less than 44%, four out of every nine, would be classed as “coasting” according to their 2014 results.

This could be partly explained by the prior low attainment that led to these schools being converted. However the report only includes schools that had been academies for at least three years, and some for much longer. In this light it comments, in what may be an understatement, that these figures "seem quite disappointing".

The conclusions are stark: While there are some chains demonstrating "impressive outcomes", "a larger group of low-performing chains are achieving results that are not improving and may be harming the prospects of their disadvantaged students".

Underperformance of the lower achieving

The most robust analysis in the report is that which compares the improvement in results in academy chains with schools that started with similar results in 2012. It is this analysis that leads the report to the conclusion that some chains are harming the performance of the most disadvantaged, and showing no capability to improve. The study split schools into five equal groups (or "quintiles") by 2012 GCSE results.

Of the nine academy chains in the lowest quintile for results in 2012, four did significantly worse and none did significantly better than schools overall, in terms of the change in GCSE results for all pupils from 2012 to 2014.

(Across all quintiles, six academy chains did significantly worse and five did significantly better than schools overall for the improvement in results for all pupils.)

Of the four academy chains in the lowest quintile for results in 2012, all did "significantly worse" than schools overall, in terms of the change in GCSE results for disadvantaged pupils from 2012 to 2014.

(Overall, across all quintiles, nine academy chains did significantly worse and five did significantly better than schools overall for the improvement in results of disadvantaged pupils.)

This is a serious concern. For the most seriously "underperforming" schools, the fact they are part of an academy chain is resulting in significantly worse improvement than if they were still maintained, in the local authority sector. This is especially the case for the most disadvantaged pupils.

Will the government listen?

Those high-performing chains that are improving at a significantly faster rate deserve praise and recognition. However they are few in number. The performance of other chains is very worrying. For the most seriously "underperforming" schools, the fact they are part of an academy chain seems to be resulting in significantly worse improvement than if they were still maintained, in the local authority sector. The report is clear that action must be taken.

As the report recommends, will the DfE “act to remove academies from failing chains”? Will it put aside ideology and place those schools with whatever body is best able to help them, whether that is another chain, the local authority or a federation?

As the report recommends, will the DfE ensure chains cannot expand unless they have a track record of success? Or will they endanger the future of those schools by placing them with academy chains that are either performing at the average or underperforming?

I would not be surprised if the government's main response to this report is to focus only on its praise for the small number of high-performing chains. If it does so, and fails to act on the reports recommendations to deal with the poorly-performing ones, then it seems it is unprepared to base its policy on the evidence and unprepared to act in the best interest of our schoolchildren.
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Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 24/07/2015 - 10:24

Henry - I've just started reading the Sutton Trust Report. In the foreword it said:

'The central aim of the sponsored academy model is for schools to benefit from the support and expertise of their academy sponsors, who include business leaders, charities, private education companies, and many other types of organisation.'

Note the inclusion of 'private education companies'. Making a profit from state schools in England is allegedly prohibited. But many academy trusts are linked to for-profit firms eg Learning Schools Trust with Kunskapsskolan; Wey Education Trust/Zail (currently 'paused') with Wey Education plc; Collaborative Learning Trust (delayed Ofsted letter of concern has just been published) with EdisonLearning; Interserve Academies Trust with Interserve plc. And the Guardian, remember, found many academy trusts were giving contracts to companies linked to trustees or their relatives.

Clearly Sutton thinks 'private education companies' have a role in providing education in England. But it's worth remembering Sam Freedman's words in 2008: when such companies get involved in state education it's not altruism, it's investment. In Sweden, one of the largest free school providers, J B Education, closed its schools because of concerns re profitability. Here in England, Prospects Academies Trust folded after saying its involvement in academies could harm their business.

Correction 17.18. I originally said I couldn't find a charity named Interserve Academies Trust. I later realised I wouldn't because academy charitable trusts are exempt charities and don't have to register with the Charities Commission. Duh! I've removed the sentence.

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 24/07/2015 - 10:31

I caught the tail end of an interview on Today about what I guess was the Sutton Trust report. The interviewee admitted that academies with sponsors could have less freedom than LA maintained schools. This, of course, applies to converter academies in chains.

This admission confirms similar comments from the Academies Commission and the Education Select Committee: both received evidence from heads in chains saying they now had less autonomy than when with LAs.

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 24/07/2015 - 10:57

John Howson on his blog writes:

'The Sutton Trust report seems somewhat light on the effects of funding. Where chains have schools in different funding bands – Ark has most schools in London, but some in Birmingham and on the south coast – do schools with different funding levels perform differently? This might suggest that either the Pupil Premium or a national funding formula would be the better policy initiative to support.'

Many early sponsored academies were brand new schools and built up year by year. Many have been very successful eg Mossbourne but we are told these new institutions replaced existing schools when many did not. Building up a school from scratch is different from the more difficult job of taking over an existing school with teachers and pupils in place.

ARK, for example, is named as one of the most successful chains. But in Birmingham two of its schools have been judged Requires Improvement and Inadequate. And the much praised rise in performance at ARK's Charter Academy on the south coast in 2013 was based on high use of equivalent exams.

Harris, too, is named as a success. But in one case at least (Downhills), Harris built on a foundation of improvement which took place before Harris took over the school.

Janet Downs's picture
Sat, 25/07/2015 - 08:01

Professor Becky Francis, co-author of the Sutton Trust analysis, discusses the findings here. I made two comments:

1 The improvement in those sponsored academies which did improve had nothing to do with structure. If that were the case then all sponsored academies would have improved. It could be because of the methods used, an increase in intake quality, even heavy use of equivalent exams. The DfE, remember, had to admit in Court there was no difference between sponsored academies and non-academies when equivalent exams were stripped out.

2 The graph compared 'mainstream' schools with other types of school. But 'mainstream' was not defined. Was it all state secondary schools or just non-academies? In any case, the comparison is flawed. The only valid comparison is between sponsored academies and similar non-academies. Sponsored academies are usually (but not always) schools which were underperforming. Any improvement rate, therefore, would be calculated from a lower base.

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