Academies 'have less freedom'

The academies programme has 'turned the clock back 30 years' in terms of school autonomy, a new report warns

John Roberts

What is the Labour party planning to do with the academies system?

The majority of academies have less freedom than before they converted, according to researchers.

A study published today also says there is a lack of transparency about the way academies are run and that the programme opens the door to “abuse of funds".

The findings are based on research by a London School of Economics academic (LSE) and a leading education lawyer.

Almost a third of state schools have become academies since the coalition government expanded the programme in 2010.  

The research says the policy aimed to give schools more freedom, but has resulted in 70 per cent of academies having less freedom than before - because they are run by multi-academy trusts.

It says maintained schools run by local authorities are more autonomous than MAT-run academies.

For example, the report says, school governing bodies were established in 1988 as freestanding legal entities.

Since then maintained schools, through their governing bodies, have been “able to able to act on key decisions on matters such as finance and appointments rather than that all being under the local authority, as had been the position before.”

But schools’ operating within MATs have lost these decision-making powers, the report argues.

However, the researchers also highlight the freedoms available to academies, including not having to follow the national curriculum or having to adhere to national school teachers’ pay and conditions.

The report’s authors, Professor Anne West of the LSE, and David Wolfe - a QC at Matrix Chambers - also claim there is a lack of transparency in the way academies are run.

They say that, whereas governors in maintained schools are appointed through an open process, “academies are run by trustees, whose opaque appointments are not subject to openness rules that apply across other areas of public life”. 

The report states that, although financial accounts of academy trusts must be audited externally, “the accounts themselves do not provide a detailed account of how (public) money is spent, in contrast to maintained schools". It adds: "This opens the door to possible abuse of funds.”

Prof West 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 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.”

The authors propose a range of ways to promote transparency and autonomy, including:

  • Ensuring all schools teach broadly the same national curriculum and simplifying admissions arrangements to reduce fragmentation across the education system.
  • 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’.
  • Restoring the legal identity of academy schools run by MATs by introducing separate contracts for each academy.
  • Restoring a local democratic role where academies operate under legal contracts with the local authority, rather than the secretary of state, to strengthen schools’ relationships with their stakeholders.
  •  Create a new legal framework allowing academies to revert to become schools maintained by the local authority.

A department for education spokeswoman said: “Since 2010 almost 7,000 schools have become academies – many of which are in the most disadvantaged areas of the country – and academic standards are rising.

"Today, over 480,000 pupils now study in good or outstanding sponsored academies that before were previously largely underperforming schools.

“The academies programme has given schools more freedom to innovate and improve in areas including their pay and conditions, teacher qualifications and their curriculum.

This autonomy and freedom supports outstanding leaders and teachers across the country to deliver an excellent education for children from every background.”

Three years ago, the head of the country's biggest academy chain suggested maintained schools had greater autonomy than those joining MATs.

Figures earlier this year revealed the number of schools applying to be academies fell year-on-year for each of the previous six months.

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John Roberts

John Roberts

John Roberts is North of England reporter for Tes

Find me on Twitter @JohnGRoberts

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