What are academies?
In 2010, the UK government introduced the concept of an academy. They were not the first by any means. The philosopher Plato created his academy in 387 BCE and the term was associated subsequently with a schools of philosophy founded by great thinkers. The UK government, with the creation of the 2010 academies had a philosophy of their own in that they aimed to remove schools from the control of local authorities and instead governed by ‘private interests’ within an multi academy trust (MAT) (Rayner et al., 2017, p. 144). In addition to this, many of the first schools to be transformed into academies were classed as ‘failing’ and did so under pressure from the government, retaining most staff with the exception in many cases of the headteacher and governors (Rayner et al., 2017, p. 144). As of March 2023, there are 1,241 stand alone academies and a 639 smaller MATs of 6 or less schools. On the other end of the spectrum, there are 11 MATs with autonomous decision-making powers over more than 41 schools each (Department of Education, 2023).
Are all schools academies?
Not yet. In 2016 the Educational Excellent Everywhere White Paper outlined plans to academise all state funded schools by 2022, obviously unsuccessfully, but in secondary in particular, we are not far removed from that situation. As of March 2023, 80.8% of state-funded secondary schools in England are academies (Department of Education, 2023). Since 2018, the number of schools converting to or being opened with academy status has fallen (see fig. 1), for the most part due to the fact that the vast majority of schools had already made the transition to academy status by this point. As the number of schools classed as academies has now started to plateau (see fig.2), I wonder if it will increase much further. For many of the schools who have not converted, this is now a philosophical and moral issue and without further forced academisation, many may choose not to move over to the new accountability system, preferring to stay under the direction of the local authority.
Are academies a good thing?
This very much depends on your political and philosophical position. It is also worth mentioning that the number of academies in England now means that the experiences of those people working within them are inevitably extremely varied. Also, the experiences of actors (parents, pupils, support staff, teachers and school leaders) will vary drastically between stand alone academies and those belonging to MATs. Greany (2018) has argued that ‘innovation’ and adaptation in order for schools systems to meet the needs of society in the 21st century, however there is not yet a robust field of evidence that says that the marketisation of education is the way to achieve this (Greany, 2018, p. 65). Greaney offers us the reflection that institutional autonomy does not equate to professional autonomy. By this, what he is saying is that whilst MATs and academies will have autonomous decision making over policies, but teachers may not have the same opportunities to decide what happens in their classrooms. As MATs and parents are stakeholders will be interested in ‘high test scores and good inspection judgements’ (Greany, 2018, p. 79), perhaps high levels of teacher autonomy are not the best things for ‘underperforming’ schools (Day, 2020; Jerrim et al., 2023), however the danger with larger systems that have a laser like focus on performance is that it could potentially lead to a narrowing of priorities depending on the leadership in place.
Since the introduction of MATs, a small but significant number have been accused of slimming down the curriculum and off-rolling pupils in the name of improving exam results to look favourable to Ofsted and within the school league table rankings. Despite this, Schools Week reported in 2014 that the largest trusts were running a model where they are responsible for more ‘not-good’ schools than good ones (Camden, 2014). In 2016, Schools Week shows that a report by the Sutton Trust revealed that 8 of the 39 large MATs had a significant number of schools where disadvantaged children were performing below the national average. It could be argued then that if academies were designed to improve standards, this may not be the case at the moment. Finally, in 2019 (the last data set before the pandemic) School Week reported that the government has released its trust league tables and shows that 6 large MATs are performing ‘well above average’, 26 are performing at ‘above average’ and 29 are performing at the national average (Whittaker, 2020). But what does this really mean when academy status is now the average? An intriguing, but very difficult to answer question would be how to local authority maintained schools, standalone academies and MATs compare to one another? As many MATs are bringing in schools that require support and development, whereas the schools who remain maintained by the authority do so as they are already performing well, this would like be an unfair comparison.
Additionally, the growth of academies in large MATs teaching using centralised systems has increased dramatically since I started teaching in 2013. This has sparked debates about curriculum from conceptualisation through to booklet making in recent years and the concern is that academisation in the context of a large MAT leads to schools having a lack of autonomy over what is taught in their classrooms. Whilst this may well be done with the best of intentions, the idea that centralisation is way to reduce staff workload, for example, is a flawed and simplistic one (I can’t directly reference him here as it was in conversation, but this is Ben Newmark’s idea). Conversely, academisation has created opportunities for schools within trusts to work together to collaboratively plan and create effective professional learning networks which are useful tools for teachers’ development and school improvement (Brown, 2019). Research learning Networks (RLNs) are a powerful professional development tool and are made more possible through the numbers of collegaues with similar roles who can share ideas in a larger MAT. I've worked in one such group in my role and it has been a highly valued piece of professional development work. Colleagues from very small, rural schools have the opportunity to learn through interaction with colleagues and the potentially isolating positions of leadership in schools are made less so through the networks MATs provide. These organisational advantages and disadvantages are ultimately linked to the moral drive and purpose to those in positions of power.
Additionally, the creation of MATs has inevitably led to the creation of central teams. Some would argue that this taking funding away from schools, others would argue that they offer a layer of support, accountability and guidance. Central teams also provide alterative career progression for those teachers who wish to progress through the ranks in their career, but are not interested in headship. Subject leaders across large trusts are an interesting idea that is too complex to unpick here. In a recruitment and retention crisis, if we can keep good people within a system by offering these roles then this has potential to impact subject knowledge on a systemic level.
So are academies a good thing? The answer is as varied as there are experiences of actors within each school, within each system. For one person, the MAT takeover of a school could be the chance for their child go to a school with more robust safeguarding, to another it could be the end of their autonomous decision making in the classroom. I am being neutral for this reason and have seen or heard about the good, the bad and the ugly in my relatively short career. Ultimately, the process has gone so far now that to undo the system would be near impossible. For the schools who wish to hold out and refuse to academise, I wonder if one day such headteachers will feel like Robert Neville from Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend. At the end of the novel, Robert realises that the “vampires” he views as monsters have taken over, formed societies and life has moved on. As a reader, we are left to question whether the book was actually one of evolution rather than horror. Thereafter, it is him that is the oddity in this new world.
2010- Government introduce academies
2014 – Schools week reports that large MATs are preforming on a model of more low-performing schools than high-performing schools
2016 – Educational Excellent Everywhere White Paper outlines plans to academise all state funded schools by 2022 (obviously, unsuccessfully!)
2016 – Sutton Trust reports that MATs are not supporting improvement in disadvantaged children’s outcomes
2017 – 8000+ MATs
2022 – Rapid increase in the number of new MATs starts to level out
Brown, C. (2019). Exploring the current context for Professional Learning Networks, the conditions for their success, and research needs moving fowards. Emerald Open Research 1, 1-18. HTTPS://DOI.ORG./10.12688/EMERALDOPENRES.12904.1
Camden, B. (2014). Academy trusts: how the big five rate. Schools Week. https://schoolsweek.co.uk/academy-trusts-how-the-big-five-rate/
Day, C. (2020). How teachers' individual autonomy may hinder students' academic progress and attainment: Professionalism in practice. British Educational Research Journal, 46, 247-264.
Department of Education. (2023). Open academies, free schools, studio schools and UTCs https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/open-academies-and-academy-projects-in-development
Greany, T. (2018). Innovation is possible, it’s just not easy: Improvement, innovation and legitimacy in England’s autonomous and accountable school system. Educational Management Administration & Leadership, 45, 65-85.
Jerrim, M., Morgan, A., & Sims, S. (2023). Teacher autonomy: Good for pupils? Good for teachers? British Educational Research Journal, 00, 1-23. https://doi.org/10.1002/berj.3892
Rayner, S. M., Courtney, S. J., & Gunter, H. M. (2017). Therosing systemic change: learning from the academisation project in England. Journal of Educational Policy, 33, 143-162.
Whittaker, F. (2020). School league tables 2019: How did your academy trust perform? Schools Week https://schoolsweek.co.uk/school-league-tables-2019-how-did-your-academy-trust-perform/