Academies’ funding agreements are inconsistent and bureaucratic, and risk tying individual schools to poorly performing chains, according to a leading thinktank.
Ministers should dramatically reform the way in which academies are governed, the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) has argued.
The comments come on the same day that local council leaders have called for academies to expand to meet demand for school places.
IPPR believes that the current funding contracts – which lay out the freedoms and constraints placed on individual academies – have a number of significant drawbacks.
At present, the government can choose to impose conditions on new academies and free schools at the point when they sign their funding agreement. But, because renegotiating existing contracts requires significant time and effort, it will not impose these same conditions on existing academies.
“The upshot of these changes to conditions is that an inconsistent and sometimes contradictory set of freedoms and controls has emerged among different academies, depending on when they signed their funding agreements,” the IPPR report says.
For example, the requirement to provide careers guidance has been inserted into and removed from funding agreements at various different points over the past decade.
The IPPR has called on the government to abolish funding agreements – which can be costly and time-consuming to renegotiate – and instead set out the rules for academies in legislation.
The report also says that “there is a risk that academies might find themselves tied to poorly performing chains and unable to leave”, because when a school joins a multi-academy trust it is the trust, rather than the individual school, that is party to the contract.
'Duty' to provide school places
The news comes as the Local Government Association (LGA) has called for councils to remain at the heart of school place planning.
On the deadline day for applications for primary school places, council leaders said they feared that the ability to provide enough school places could be put at risk if academies didn't agree to increase capacity.
The LGA is also concerned that councils may struggle to find free school sponsors to open schools in time within their areas as the programme develops.
Councillor Roy Perry, chairman of the LGA’s Children and Young People Board, said: “Councils have a statutory duty to ensure every child has a school place available to them but find themselves in the difficult position of not being able to ensure schools, including academies, expand.
“If they are not willing to expand, then powers to create new schools should be returned to local authorities themselves if they are unable to secure high-quality free school sponsors in their communities.”
A Department for Education spokesman responded to the IPPR's criticisms of academies contracts saying the schools were subject to "a strict system of oversight and accountability" that was greater than with local authority schools.
He added: "We continually keep the legal frameworks governing the system under review to ensure they are fit for purpose.”