Election 2017. Be informed: the facts on free schools, academies and non-academies

Janet Downs's picture

In the run-up to elections, it’s difficult to sift facts from spin.  The National Foundation for Educational Research and FullFact have come to voters’ aid.  Here’s a summary* of two of their fact sheets about state schools in England:

Free schools    

Evidence about how good free schools are for pupils’ performance is mixed. 

Care needs to be taken with comparisons: the number of free schools is relatively small compared to other school types and we don’t know if free schools inspected so far are representative of all free schools.

Free schools are more likely to be judged outstanding but also more likely to be judged as requiring improvement or inadequate.

Most free schools are now set up in areas which need new places but not always in the areas with the greatest need.

21% of secondary free schools are in local authorities (LAs) where, overall, no new capacity is needed between 2010 and 2020.

LAs responding to a National Audit Office survey (April 2016 – January 2017) said 50% of primary free schools and 67% of secondary free schools were not located in the areas of greatest need within their area.

It is cheaper to create a new place through the expansion of an existing LA school than to set up a new free school.

The DfE has spent much more on free schools than was anticipated.

Academies and maintained schools     

Evidence on the performance of academies compared to LA schools is mixed but on the whole there’s no substantial difference in performance. (This is despite years of propaganda saying academy conversion is a magic bullet for increased performance.)

Analysis of GCSE results suggests academies generally don’t perform better than secondary non-academies.  We don’t know as much about primary performance.

77% of primaries are not academies (March 2017 figures).  4% are in stand-alone academy trusts.  18% are in a multi-academy trust (MAT).  1% are free schools.  (This suggests there is still reluctance in the primary sector to move from LA stewardship).

31% of secondaries are not academies (March 2017 figures).  26% are stand-alone academies (their days may be numbered – the pressure is on for them to become MATs or join an existing MAT).  36% are in MATs.  7% are free schools, university technical colleges or studio schools.

The number of MATs grew rapidly from 391 in March 2011 to 1,121 in November 2016 (the number of academies transferring between academy trusts grows year on year but the Department for Education is dragging its feet on publishing how much these transfers cost the taxpayer).

The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) criticised the DfE for letting some MATs expand too quickly without independent assessments of their capacity and capability to grow.

The DfE has been criticised for a lack of accountability for academies.

The DfE expects to spend £9.7 billion on the free schools programme out of a total capital investment in all schools of £23 billion.


*I’ve lifted most of the sentences directly from the sheets although I’ve sometimes shortened them.  My comments are in italics in brackets.  I’ve kept these to the minimum.

NFER/FullFact have published a third fact sheet on teacher retention.  It’s here.  

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agov's picture
Wed, 07/06/2017 - 11:59

"77% of primaries are not academies"

Yes, but how many local authorities will continue to maintain any schools once the total proportion of academy schools in their area goes over 50%? What is the likelihood that the academy conversion process will speed up after tomorrow's likely result? -


The challenge for the primary sector may soon become not to avoid becoming an academy but to avoid becoming an academy in a MAT run by a secondary school intent on snatching primary sector resources to shore up the mismanaged budget of the secondary academy.

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 08/06/2017 - 07:56

agov - sadly you're right.  It won't matter (probably never mattered) whether primaries want to become academies.   A few high-profile schools (eg Cuckoo Hall, Durand) with heads sympathetic to Gove converted immediately in Sept 2010.  But after seven years of constant propaganda re academy 'freedoms', three-quarters of primaries still are not academies.  This shows a willingness to remain under the stewardship of LAs rather than risk autonomy by joining a MAT (the only feasible possibility for small primaries).

Secondary schools acted selfishly in the initial rush to convert.  They did so in the expectation of getting more money.  But the extra money they got had to be spent on buying services provided by the LA together with extra admin and legal fees.  These secondaries acted without considering the effect on their smaller counterparts in the primary sector.  It was a case of one for one and stuff the rest.  Now stand-alone academies are under pressure to join MATs where they're likely to find they have less control than they had when they were with the LA (unless, of course, the lead academy heads the trust when, as you say, it has control over the resources and the 'brand').

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