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 the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) and a leading education lawyer at Matrix.
Almost a third of state schools have become academies since the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition expanded the academies programme from 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 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.”