Spotlight on School Academies

As we settle back into the school year, we thought we’d take a look at Academies. Whether or not they’ve been successful, whether independence has improved school governance or whether there is still work to be done.

What is an Academy?

According to the government’s website, academies are publicly funded independent schools, which don’t have to follow the national curriculum and can set their own term times. Although they have much wider freedom in regards to where their money is spent and the running of their schools, they still have to follow the same rules on admissions, special educational needs and exclusions as other state schools.

Academies are funded directly from the government, rather than the local authority, and are run by an ‘academy trust’ which employs the staff.

Some academies have sponsors such as businesses, universities, other schools, faith groups or voluntary groups and such sponsors are responsible for improving the performance of their schools.

Governance – How are they run?

In terms of their governance, academies are established as companies limited by guarantee with a board of directors that acts as a trust. The trust has exempt charity status and is regulated by the Department for Education. Therefore, the same rules and best practice that govern charities apply and the trustees are legally responsible for the operation of the academy. The trustees should oversee the running of the school with day-to-day management of the school being delegated to the Head Teacher.

In the case of Sponsored Academies, the sponsor is able to influence the process of establishing the school, including its curriculum, ethos, specialism and building.

Many of the academies form part of “multi-academy trusts” meaning that there are a number of academies in one “group” being managed by one trust. The idea behind these multi-academy groups is for high-performing schools within the trust to help struggling ones to improve.

How long have Academies been running?

The policy of Academies originated under the Labour Government in the early 2000s and were created as a way to improve failing schools, particularly in poorer, inner city areas. The policy was extended under the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition in 2010with the policy extended to increase the number of academies by allowing all maintained schools to convert to academy status regardless of performance.

According to the Office of National Statistics, in 2018, there are approximately 7000 academy schools making up 35% of state funded schools.

Have Academies been successful?

 The verdict is mixed. The government has argued that academies drive up standards by putting more power in the hands of head teachers over pay, length of the school day and term times. This is supported by their having more freedom to innovate and being able to opt out of the national curriculum. There have also been claims that academies improve twice as fast as other schools but this has been disputed.

The main criticism is that of governance with many MPs and other groups saying there is a lack of oversight, in terms of finances and public accountability.

This view has been exacerbated by a number of high-profile failures of multi-academy trusts including the Wakefield City Academies Trust where an investigation by the Education Funding Agency found that the Trust was “in an extremely vulnerable position as a result of inadequate governance, leadership and overall financial management”

There is are also many stories of Trusts paying their bosses “unjustifiably” high salaries without necessarily improving the education of pupils.

Good Governance should be at the heart of the Academy system

As with all charitable bodies, good governance should be the central pillar of running an Academy Trust. The usual governance strands should be at the front and centre of all the trust does including:

  • Open and Transparent financial management
  • Risk Management
  • Good system of internal controls
  • Effective leadership
  • Stakeholder engagement (there are many stories of poor relationships with parents, who are not given a voice in the education of their children; as well as criticism from the Teachers Unions)

Whilst recent news stories have focussed on the negative side of Academies and those that have come into the spotlight for all the wrong reasons, there are also success stories, with better key stage 2 results showing“that schools that benefit from the freedoms academy status bring have had particular success in improving outcomes for pupils, with results improving the longer a school has been an academy”.

In theory, it seems plausible that applying strategies and management styles, successful in the business arena could help improve the management and ultimately performance of schools, but only if good, sound governance principles are at the heart of everything that the Trust does.

If you are an Academy looking to improve your governance, please contact us here to find out more about how we can help.


Sources: https://www.nao.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2018/02/Converting-maintained-schools-to-academies-Summary.pdf; https://www.independent.co.uk/news/education/education-news/academy-trusts-salaries-ceo-pay-public-accounts-committee-wakefield-meg-hillier-a8280281.html; https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/sep/11/academies-parents-tories-labour; https://www.theguardian.com/education/2018/jul/22/academy-schools-scandal-failing-trusts; https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-13274090;