Is the total academisation of schools in England a good idea?

by Stacey Dingwall

In one of the major announcements made as part of last week’s Budget, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, declared that all schools in England must become academies by 2020, or at least have official plans to do so by 2022. Any schools who fail to comply with this timetable will be forced to do so under new powers adopted by the government.

The policy, Osborne claimed, would “set schools free from local bureaucracy” and is part of his government’s plan to “make sure that every child gets the best start in life”. As the plan was announced, Education Secretary Nicky Morgan tweeted that “Full academisation will empower great teachers & leaders giving them autonomy and accountability to let their schools succeed”. Writing in a white paper published the following day, her department stated that removing schools from local authority control would help to “empower local communities, putting children and parents first and clearly defining the role of local government”.

More academies – the reaction

Reactions to the announcement were broadly negative, with the reform attracting criticism from local authorities, the shadow education secretary, unions, teachers, think tanks and parents, amongst others. Alongside Conor Ryan, Director of Research at the Sutton Trust, many pointed towards the fact that limited evidence exists of academies’ ability to improve the attainment levels of disadvantaged pupils, which was their original purpose. A loss of accountability to parents was also raised as a concern by some, including the Local Government Association, who stated that they opposed the handing over of “significant” powers in areas – including the curriculum – to “unelected civil servants”.

It was also noted that the government has decided to go ahead with the reform despite a recent letter to Morgan from Sir Michael Wilshaw, the Chief Inspector of Schools in England and head of Ofsted, which described the results of recent HMI inspections of academies as “worrying”. Wilshaw also wrote that many of the inspected multi-academy trusts displayed the same weaknesses as the worst performing local education authorities, and that the large salaries paid to the chief executives of these trusts was a “poor use of public money”.

Ongoing concerns

The Budget announcement comes almost two years after we first looked at issues with the academies programme on the blog. At that time, we reported on concerns that money which could be spent on addressing the shortage of school places in London was instead being used to open academies in areas where there was no urgent need for more places.

International experience: America and the Netherlands

After facing similar criticism to the English programme of failing to improve the attainment of poorer pupils, some are suggesting that the American charter schools programme, which heavily influenced the creation of the academies programme, is in decline. The Mayor of New York, Bill de Blasio, continues to be a vocal opponent of the movement, despite facing legal challenges over his refusal to guarantee space to new and expanding charter schools.

Speaking at a town hall meeting in South Carolina in November 2015, former charter supporter and potential Democrat presidential nominee Hillary Clinton voiced her opinion that charter schools do not engage with the “hardest-to-reach” kids, or if they do, “they don’t keep them”.

Writing for the Institute of Education, University College London blog, Toby Greany and Melanie Ehren considered the experience of the Netherlands, a country whose schools system has higher rates of autonomy than England. Two issues experienced by the Dutch Schools Boards, which were set up to oversee groups of primary schools, are highlighted as particularly relevant for England:

  1. Some Boards have been placed into special financial measures due to their failure to correctly predict their pupil numbers; this, it is argued, could befall academies in England who cover more than one local authority area.
  2. Due to limited engagement with teaching staff and parents, the Boards have not managed to fully embed themselves as legitimate in the eyes of society.

Evidence update

Since our 2014 blog, both the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) and Centre for Economic Performance (CEP) have published new evidence on academies, focusing on their impact on pupil attainment. In their May 2015 review of available evidence, the NFER noted several difficulties in evaluating the performance of academies due to several gaps in the evidence. The review concluded that while there is some evidence to suggest that sponsored secondary academies have had a positive impact on attainment, no significant difference in progress could be found between converter academies and similar non-academy schools. In addition, no conclusive evidence was found of the impact of academisation on primary pupils’ attainment.

In a think piece published alongside the evidence review, the NFER concluded that further expansion of the academies programme by the government would require the following factors to justify it:

  • a clearly articulated theory of change
  • the right evidence
  • evaluation
  • sufficient capacity
  • accountability

Given the reaction to the Budget’s announcement, it can be assumed that most are of the opinion that the government has not yet managed to provide sufficient justification for its decision.


Further reading from our blog on the English education system:

One thought on “Is the total academisation of schools in England a good idea?

  1. Pingback: Education Bill scrapped: the local government impact | The Knowledge Exchange Blog

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