Analysis: Has the well of academy sponsors dried up?

The government wants more schools to convert, but fewer potential sponsors are coming forward

What next if the well of academy sponsors is drying up?

Tes has today revealed that the number of applications to become academy sponsors has dropped by a massive 40 per cent in just two years. 

When asked about the findings, the Department for Education's response was the verbal equivalent of a shrug of the shoulders.

In a nutshell, it said more sponsors were only needed when regulator Ofsted rated a school as inadequate – and that because school standards were rising, this wasn't happening so often.

The department has, it said, more than 1,100 sponsors that it could call upon.

However, the tone of this response was in contrast to concerns raised by Ofsted itself, which last December said that the DfE’s efforts to turn around failing schools would not succeed without more good sponsors.


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And just a month earlier, the DfE described sponsor quality as being not just one of the top risks facing the academies programme, but also as a “high priority”.

The same document outlined how, to address the risk, the DfE had been encouraging more good and outstanding schools to become sponsors.

So despite the DfE’s public protestations of contentment in the face of the fall in sponsors, ministers and civil servants are probably less relaxed behind the scenes.

This is especially so given the new emphasis education secretary Damian Hinds has put on expanding the academy and free school programme, here, here and here.

For Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the NEU teaching union, this drop in new sponsors is “catastrophic” for the education secretary’s ambitions.

Where, then, does this leave the government?

Weight falls on state sector

Firstly, it almost certainly now knows that it cannot count on the business, charity or independent school sectors to come riding to the rescue.

One of the most striking trends in today's figures is the almost complete lack of enthusiasm from the business community to sponsor schools, with only three sponsorship applications coming from this source over two years. None were approved.

The DfE’s Academy Ambassadors scheme, which allows business people to get involved in schools through governance instead of the more onerous and reputationally risky step of sponsoring a school, seems a more successful way of injecting private sector expertise into the state school system.

And while the 2017 Conservative manifesto promised that many more private schools would become sponsors, the sector is completely absent from the DfE’s statistics on recent academy-sponsor applications.

The weight of the DfE’s ambitions therefore falls on the state school sector.

In both of the past two academic years, existing converter academies were by far the biggest source of sponsor applications, but their numbers fell from 101 to 76.

Some well-informed observers suggest that, nine years after the big academisation drive began, the well of new sponsors is running dry.

If Mr Hinds really does want many more schools to become academies, it seems that he will instead need to rely on the many small academy trusts expanding.

The scale of the challenge is clear from the latest DfE statistics about the academy landscape. Issued in December, they show that there are 796 academy trusts with between two and five schools.

If fewer and fewer potential new sponsors are coming forward, but the DfE also wants more and more schools to become academies, many of these small trusts will have to grow. Whether they choose to do so, or can be persuaded to, remains to be seen.

Most will currently be clusters of local schools with pre-existing ties and links. Many will have been formed during the pre-Greening era when the DfE was aggressively pursuing mass academisation, and schools decided to convert on their own terms rather than be pushed later.

For them, forming a multi-academy trust (MAT) was a decision borne out of a desire to retain control of their destiny rather than hand it to a big outside MAT. It was self-preservation rather than an ambition to build an empire.

For many, expanding beyond a handful of schools would feel like transforming themselves from family into a corporation.

They will look carefully before they leap, and the DfE cannot take it for granted that enough will take the plunge.

Martin George is a Tes reporter

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