Academy Expansion

Since last month’s budget and the publication of the Government’s education White Paper “Education Excellence Everywhere” the academy debate has naturally focused on the issue of full academisation and the rapid rate at which Government wants to achieve it. Debates in Parliament have demonstrated the challenge that Government faces in winning the Parliamentary argument let alone delivering its ambition.

The Department for Education (DfE) recently released its attempt to bust what it considers to be ten academy myths[1] and that was inevitably followed by those on the other side of the fence releasing their own attempts to bust the busting of those myths (for example, see the NUT’s response.)[2]

Yet again this demonstrates the need for robust, balanced, evidence on academies to inform the debate. Over the coming months CentreForum, in partnership with the London School of Economics, will be publishing its own analysis of the expansion of the academies programme and what we can, and indeed cannot, say about the impact that it has had on pupil outcomes.

Impact of the Education and Adoption Act

Regardless of those debates and how the Government responds in light of opposition from its own backbenches, the expansion of the academies programme continues and the powers of the Secretary of State were strengthened considerably last week with the commencement of many of the provisions of the Education and Adoption Act 2016.

Most significantly, this means that the Secretary of State, working through the eight Regional Schools Commissioners, now has a duty to issue an academy order to any school deemed by Ofsted to be inadequate – meaning it has serious weaknesses or requires special measures. Where previously academisation had been the expected route in such circumstances with the Secretary of State permitted to issue an academy order, it is now the only route. All schools already rated as inadequate are included meaning that there is likely to be a spike in the number of schools requiring intervention.

How many schools does this mean? It is difficult to say exactly. The latest data published by Ofsted includes inspections up to the end of March this year and we have data on schools in the ‘academy pipeline’ – i.e. are in the process of becoming academies – at the start of this month. Therefore, we do not know exactly the number of schools in scope now but, based on this data, at the start of this month there were:

  • 188 maintained schools rated as inadequate; of which
  • 12 have already re-opened as academies; and
  • A further 56 are in the ‘academy pipeline’.[3]

Of the remainder, three have either closed or amalgamated with other schools or are in the process of doing so. This leaves 117 maintained schools rated as inadequate that are not proposed to close and are not yet in the academy pipeline and hence require intervention. By way of comparison, over the last 12 months a total of 197 sponsored academies have been opened.

The number of schools that might fall into inadequate

Schools have previously moved in and out of an inadequate rating, but that will no longer be the case for maintained schools – once they are inadequate they will become a sponsored academy. We can consider the likely flow of maintained schools falling into inadequate – that’s to say, the number of schools that might now become eligible for intervention from month to month. The chart below shows how many local authority maintained schools were found to be inadequate (having previously been rated as requires improvement or better or being inspected for the first time) during the 2014/15 year.

Figure 1: Number of maintained schools judged as inadequate (having previously been rated as requires improvement or better) by month of report publication in 2014/15 academic year[4]


This suggests that each month there will be around 15 schools that will require action. DfE have previously said that up to 1,000 failing schools would eventually be reached by this measure.[5] Based on this data, that estimate does not seem unreasonable given the degree of uncertainty in future Ofsted outcomes and that the numbers will start to decline as schools convert (voluntarily or otherwise) before reaching that stage.

Sponsor capacity to take on failing schools

The eight Regional Schools Commissioners now face having to broker academy sponsor relationships for the existing pool of schools judged inadequate and those that become inadequate over the coming months, whilst also fulfilling their oversight and intervention role – including approving academy conversions, the management of academy sponsors, securing expansion of the sponsor market and tackling underperformance in open academies.

The same Ofsted data shows that there are 123 academies and free schools currently judged as inadequate and in some cases this may require ‘rebrokerage’ where an academy or group of academies is moved from one sponsor to another creating an additional demand for sponsor capacity.

Chapter 5 of the white paper set out the ambition of “High quality sponsors, where they are needed.” The next question is then, are there suitable sponsors to step up and take over these schools? We have no direct measures of sponsor capacity within a particular area. Whilst DfE publish a list of approved sponsors, this does not provide information on the areas in which they are able to operate nor the capacity or appetite they have for taking on additional schools.

We can calculate a crude proxy measure based on the number of outstanding academies that are within an area and how that compares with the number of failing local authority maintained schools and academies. This shares some of the features of the approach adopted by DfE in their proposed measures for Achieving Excellence Areas.[6] In the map below we plot, for each local authority area, the number of outstanding academies there are per failing maintained school or academy.

Figure 2: Number of outstanding academies per failing maintained school or academy (mainstream only)


Whilst this measure is fairly crude it does give an indication of the presence of high performing sponsors or high performing academies that may be able to partner with other schools. It illustrates the inconsistent coverage across the country and the need to develop high quality multi-academy trusts in areas where coverage is weakest.

Achieving the Government’s ambition of high quality MATs in all areas demands a good understanding of what it is that drives high performance and how MATs should grow in a sustainable way; this is an important part of the recently launched inquiry in to multi-academy trusts by the Education Select Committee.[7]

However, within the last fortnight DfE have decided to withhold its latest analysis of what a high performing sponsor looks like on the grounds that it was being used to inform the development of policy on the growth of MATs.[8] This seems short sighted. MATs are already being established and growing, they should do so in a way that works based on the best available evidence.

Additional demand from coasting schools

Looking at failing schools alone understates the demand for sponsors since this demand can also come from, for example, underperformance as measured by pupil attainment. This situation is going to get more challenging. The number of schools falling into scope for intervention will increase during the next academic year when the Government defines which schools – local authority maintained and academies – it considers to be ‘coasting’. The Department intends to identify those where, whilst attainment doesn’t fall below minimum standards, pupils are consistently making less progress than similar pupils elsewhere.

This is another power provided by the Education and Adoption Act, but is not yet in force. This is because reforms to accountability mean that ‘coasting’ cannot be defined until this year’s results are available.  We will be looking in more detail about these reforms and the issue of coasting schools in the coming months.

Unlike schools judged as inadequate, RSCs will not have to issue an academy order to a coasting school – i.e. it is not necessary for all coasting schools to become academies in the way that all inadequate schools do. However, if the Government continues to move towards a fully academised system it would seem likely that most, if not all, coasting schools would become sponsored academies or converters within a strong MAT.

For now, the Schools Causing Concern Guidance sets out a structured set of conclusions that RSCs might reach on coasting maintained schools: [9]

  • no further action if they are convinced the school is supporting its pupils well;
  • the school needs some additional support and challenge;
  • the governing body of the maintained school should be required to enter into arrangements;
  • additional governors or an Interim Executive Board (IEB) are needed; or
  • a sponsored academy solution is necessary.

The Schools Commissioner, Sir David Carter, has been keen to stress that RSCs will be considering all of these options and becoming a sponsored academy will not be the solution in all cases. The coasting definition will also apply to academies and a similar approach adopted in which the final stage is termination of the funding agreement and movement to a multi-academy trust – in some cases meaning moving from one sponsor to another.

The demands on RSCs

Whilst becoming a coasting school does not automatically mean becoming a sponsored academy, the introduction of this definition and the need to intervene on top of the need to broker academy solutions for failing schools puts increasing demands on the eight RSCs. They and the DfE more widely, will have been preparing for the expansion in the number of academies and in their remit for some time but it is crucial that none of this comes at the expense of supporting open academies that are already struggling. Nor should it mean placing schools within poorly performing MATs simply due to capacity issues. Otherwise we would risk replacing one set of failing schools with another.

A recent DfE press notice celebrated the 350,000 pupils in sponsored academies rated as good or outstanding.[10] Whilst this is likely to be an overestimate of the number of schools that have been turned around (since not all sponsored academies were previously failing and many are brand new schools), our own estimates suggest that there are around 80,000 pupils in academies and free schools judged as inadequate by Ofsted.[11] Furthermore, the limited data published by DfE on the performance of academy chains shows that there is considerable variation between them.[12]

So whilst recent academy debates have focused on the issue of full academisation, we must not lose sight of the significant reforms that are already well underway and the implications in particular for the work of the RSCs. An increasing number of maintained schools and academies will be in scope for intervention – either through informal or formal processes – and this will in some cases create additional demand for high quality multi-academy trusts.

Ofsted outcomes for converter academies

We’ve focused here on issues around failing academies and maintained schools and in particular maintained schools becoming sponsored academies. Most of the future expansion of academies will be through converter academies

At PMQs in each of the last two weeks the Prime Minister has set out his support for academy expansion using statistics on the performance of converter academies in Ofsted inspections.  For example, last week he said

We also support it because of the clear evidence of academies. If we look at converter academies, we will see that 88% of them are either good or outstanding”[13]

This is factually correct based on the latest Ofsted data, but as many have pointed out it cannot be used as evidence of the effectiveness of the academies programme. In the early days after the Academies Act 2010 only outstanding schools and then good schools with outstanding features were allowed to convert. Subsequently, schools rated below good have been allowed to convert but only if supported by a high performing school or strong sponsor.[14] It is not surprising that the proportion rated good or outstanding is so high.

If we look at Ofsted outcomes from the predecessor schools of converter academies we find that 87% were already rated good or outstanding, and furthermore only half of converter academies have been inspected as an academy. The Prime Minister may take comfort from the fact that so many good or outstanding schools have chosen to convert, but he should not use these statistics to make claims about the effectiveness of academies.



[1] DfE “10 facts you need to know about academies”

[2] NUT “10 NUT Realities”

[3] Source: Ofsted monthly management information. and DfE Open Academies and Projects in Development

[4] Source: Ofsted monthly management information.


[6] DfE(2016) “Defining ‘achieving excellence areas’”



[9] DfE (2016) “Schools Causing Concern”–2

[10] DfE (2016) “Turbocharged academies programme gives better education for 350,000 pupils”

[11] Based on Ofsted monthly management information of latest inspection outcomes matched to School Census data on number of pupils (including from predecessor schools where the academy has recently opened.)

[12] DfE (2015) “Measuring the performance of schools within academy chains and local authorities”.


[14] DfE (2015) “Academies Annual Report” pg 10

Data sources:

DfE data on open academies and academy projects in development (April 2016)

Pupil numbers taken from DfE Schools Pupils and their Characteristics (January 2015)

Ofsted latest inspection outcomes (end March 2016) and all inspection outcomes September 2005 – August 2015

School open status taken from Edubase (4 April 2016)