Damian Hinds’ vision of more schools becoming academies is being threatened by a “catastrophic” fall in the number of applications to become sponsors, Tes can reveal.
However, a Tes investigation has found that the number of applications to sponsor academies fell by 40 per cent over the past two academic years.
There were 161 applications in 2016-17 compared with 97 in 2017-18.
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And the number of applications approved fell by more than 50 per cent – from 115 to 56 – although 20 of the 2017-18 applications were recorded as still being under assessment.
A Tes analysis of DfE data obtained using freedom of information legislation also found:
- No sponsor applications from the business or charity sector in the past two years had been approved.
- Almost a quarter of applications over the two years were rejected (7 per cent) or withdrawn (17 per cent). A further 10 per cent were described as being still under assessment.
- A growing proportion of applications to become sponsors are coming from existing academies – rising from 63 per cent in 2016-17 to 78 per cent in 2017-18.
The fall in applications comes despite a warning from Ofsted in December that “without more good sponsors, the DfE’s ambition to support failing schools will not be realised", as well as the DfE itself identifying “an insufficient number of high-quality sponsors” as being one of the biggest risks to the academy programme.
Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the NEU teaching union, told Tes that the lack of sponsors was “one of the biggest threats to the academy programme”.
She said: “It has been clear for years now that the DfE’s drive to academise schools has been constrained because there have not been enough sponsors coming forward, and a 40 per cent drop is catastrophic for the DfE.
“Because there has been such a string of high-profile academy-sponsor failures, the DfE has had to raise the bar, and that raising of the bar acts to cut off the supply of sponsors at a time when the DfE wants more of them and the secretary of state is making these grand pronouncements.”
Matthew Wolton, a lawyer at Knights, told Tes that “most substantial organisations that you would actually want to be involved in sponsoring have already probably thrown their hat in the ring”.
He said the focus was now shifting to “existing multi-academy trusts that have maybe four or five schools, that have developed experience and knowledge, and are now ready to take on their first poorly performing school, but with the intention that they will grow to 30 or 40”.
Jonathan Simons, director of education at policy consultancy Public First and a former Downing Street education adviser, said: “I think [the fall in applications] is probably a combination of, in the short term, the lower-risk option for RSCs [regional schools commissioners] being to expand existing sponsors, combined with hitting a bit of a natural plateau in terms of self-starting, go-getting heads that want to become executive heads.”
Asked whether he thought the DfE ought to be concerned, he said “they should be worried only if they don’t have a reasonable degree of confidence that the existing sponsors can expand”.
A DfE spokesperson said: “We only need more academy sponsors in response to inadequate Ofsted judgements when a direct academy order is issued. With a rise in standards, the demand for new sponsors is not at the same level as it has been historically.”
She also noted the £121.5 million of funding that the DfE had provided to support the growth of academy trusts since 2012.