Academies have less freedom, not more

Henry Stewart's picture

Press release from LSE:

The rapid conversion of state schools to academies since 2010 has resulted in the majority of such schools having less freedom than before, according to new research from LSE and a leading education lawyer at Matrix released today, (5 June 2018).

Almost a third of state schools have become academies since the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition expanded the academies programme in 2010, with a key aim to give schools more freedom. However, the policy has resulted in over 70% of academies having less freedom than they had before, as they are run by Multi-Academy Trusts (MATs) and no longer exist as ‘autonomous’ schools, unlike schools maintained by local authorities.

The report’s authors, Professor Anne West of the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), and Dr David Wolfe QC at Matrix, highlight the lack of transparency in the way academies are run. In contrast to maintained schools, where decisions are taken by governors appointed through an open process, academies are run by ‘trustees’, whose opaque appointments are not subject to openness rules which apply across other areas of public life.

‘Freedoms’ of academies include not having to follow the national curriculum – potentially reducing educational opportunities for pupils – and not having to adhere to the national school teachers’ pay and conditions – raising concerns about teacher retention in maintained schools.

The financial accounts of academy trusts must be audited by external auditors, but the accounts themselves do not provide a detailed account of how (public) money is spent, in contrast to maintained schools. This opens the door to possible abuse of funds.

The authors offer a range of solutions to help address issues of transparency and autonomy, the lack of local democratic oversight and the governance of academies, without necessarily re-imposing a system of maintained schools in state education. These include:

  • Ensuring all schools teach broadly the same national curriculum and simplifying admissions arrangements to reduce fragmentation across the education system. The authors also recommend expanding the role of the Local Government Ombudsman to scrutinise the admissions and exclusion decision processes of academies.

  • Restoring a common format for academy governing bodies, including the requirements for parental, staff and community involvement; this will help bring ‘the current, incoherent and fragmented, set of provisions together in a single framework’. They also suggest greater transparency and accountability could be achieved by introducing a requirement for trusts to publish special educational needs policies, and expenditure for individual academies, in the same format as maintained schools.

  • Restoring the legal identity of academy schools run by MATs by introducing separate contracts for each academy. Similarly, the authors write that further school autonomy could be achieved by ‘allowing for the mobility of academies between MATS… and the standardisation (by statute) of the contractual arrangements.’

  • To address fragmentation within the education system, the authors recommend statutory intervention. Restoring a local democratic role where academies operate under legal contracts with the local authority, rather than the Secretary of State, would help strengthen schools’ relationships with their stakeholders. The authors also recommend a new legal framework enabling academies to revert to become schools maintained by the local authority, as opposed to central government.

Professor Anne West of the Department of Social Policy at LSE said: “The current system is fragmented and opaque, raising major concerns regarding children’s educational opportunities, school autonomy and the use of public funds. We propose a number of ways in which transparency and accountability could be improved including addressing pressing needs, such as academy trusts ‘divesting’ themselves of schools and the problems this creates for pupils, parents, teachers and local communities.”

Dr David Wolfe said: “Despite governments across the spectrum promoting academies to enhance school autonomy, academisation has actually put the clock back 30 years to an era where schools were run centrally. Our suggestions would bring much-needed transparency and return schools to their communities.”

Download an electronic copy of the report Academies, the School System in England and a Vision for the Future by Professor Anne West (LSE) and Dr David Wolfe QC (Matrix).

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Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 08/06/2018 - 13:10

 This site has been arguing for years that becoming an academy does not bring extra 'freedom' but reduces it when a school joins a multi-academy trust (MAT).   And the Academies Commission 2013 found LA schools had most of the freedoms allegedly handed to academy trusts.  One freedom available to academies which isn't available to non-academies is the freedom to hire unqualified teachers.  But that, the Academies Commission said, was a freedom which parents would rather academies didn't have.

Non-academies, as the post above makes clear, are legal entities in their own right.  Academies in MATs are not.  And academies in MATs are only allowed as much autonomy as the trustees will give them.

'They create a prison and call it freedom'.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Fri, 08/06/2018 - 13:37

The LSE research is right, but there is nothing new here. I fear that the fiddling with governance that the report's authors suggest will be no more effective than Chris Grayling's efforts to solve the problems of our privatised railway system. In both cases the only effective solutions are the same: restoring democratically accountable public ownership. In the case of our railways this is relatively cheap and easy, given the political will. Restore the franchises to a newly created British Railways Board as they come up for renewal.

Re-nationalising our school system will be more difficult because the only sensible and effective method of locally accountable management is Local Education Authorities (LEAs). These have been abolished and most have lost their expertise as Local Authority Education Departments have been replaced by 'Children's Services', usually run by a social worker. However there are exceptions and the London Borough of Hackney provides an example with which Henry Stewart will be very familiar. The Hackney Learning Trust operates much like an LEA, with the local academies voluntarily co-operating with what is effect Local Authority oversight.

At least this was how it was when I undertook the research for my study of Mossbourne Academy that forms Part 4 of my book, Learning Matters'.

Academy MATs have long been restricting access of learners to teaching methods of proven effectiveness in favour of 'market culture' approaches that do not work. See

Worse still Religious organisations including the Church of England, the Roman Catholic Church and various oddball evangelical proselytisers are now exploiting lack of proper regulation and oversight of Academy Trusts. See

John Mountford's picture
Fri, 08/06/2018 - 17:40

It amuses me that the freedom not to have to comply with the National Curriculum is seen as a weakness in the academies programme. If used properly, this one freedom would address one of the most pressing needs in the English education system - a move away from a politically idological vission of what our young people 'should' learn. The pitty is that, in general, the leaders of these schools do not take the opportunity this freedom offers to ensure that local accountability delivers on local and future priorities for education. 

For my money, this is yet another example of academics  and the politically driven 'bandwaggoners' tinkering with a key issue that is begging for strong leadership. Time will tell, I maintain, when these foolish structural changes to OUR education service will be proven to be nothing more than smoke and mirrors. Let's hope it doesn't  implode in the process. Bring on the revolution!!

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 12/06/2018 - 13:33

The pro-academy group FASNA has published 'corrections' to the LSE report.  I've written about it here.  

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