Future of academisation in doubt, spending watchdog warns

Heads' leader warns that struggling schools are being 'left in limbo' by delays converting them into academies

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The government’s flagship academies programme is running into increasing challenges, a report by the government spending watchdog has said.

Today’s report from the National Audit Office (NAO), Converting Maintained Schools to Academies, was described as a “damning indictment” of the government’s policy by teachers’ leaders.

It finds:

  • That converting schools into academies has cost £745 million since 2010-11
  • Two-thirds of "inadequate" schools take longer than the government’s nine-month target to be converted into an academy
  • 242 sponsored academies are more than 50 miles from their sponsor, despite the government wanting sponsors to be close to the schools they support
  • There “appears to be a shortage of sponsors and multi-academy trusts with the capacity to support new academies”
  • Challenges converting schools into academies are “likely to increase in the future” as many remaining maintained schools are primaries that can be unattractive to potential sponsors

As of January 2018, 6,996 maintained schools had become academies, with 72 per cent of secondary schools being academies or free schools, compared to 27 per cent of primaries.

The NAO warns that the high number of secondary academies combined with the low number of primary academies in many areas makes it “more difficult for [local authorities] to take an integrated whole-system approach to their children’s education”.

Amyas Morse, head of the National Audit Office, said: "It is unclear how feasible it will be for the department to continue converting large numbers of schools to academies. There is extensive variation across the country, leaving many local authorities with responsibility largely for primary schools.

“To cut through this complexity, the department needs to set out its vision and clarify how it sees academies, maintained schools and local authorities working together to create a coherent and effective school system for children across all parts of the country.”

'Languishing without support'

Since April 2016, all "inadequate" maintained schools legally have to become academies, with the DfE wanting this to happen within nine months.

However, the report says that of 166 school rated "inadequate" by Ofsted between April 2016 and March 2017, 63 per cent had not opened as academies nine months later.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said struggling schools were “left in limbo” by the failure to find them sponsors.

He added: “Compulsory academisation should not be the default ‘solution’, particularly where it is very difficult to secure a sponsor.

“Instead, a range of options should be considered to give the school the swift and effective support that is needed to improve standards for its pupils, and the school itself should be meaningfully consulted about the best way forward.”

Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, described the report as a “damning indictment of government education policy”. 

He said: “The true legacy of the academy programme, and its attack on local authority oversight and structures, are the 105 schools previously forced to become academies following an ‘inadequate’ rating by Ofsted which are now languishing without support nine months later because the Department for Education has failed to find a sponsor for them.

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “As the report acknowledges, we have improved the process for converting schools to academies and increased the standards of governance we expect from multi-academy trusts.”

She added that 450,000 pupils study in a sponsored academy that was typically previously underperforming, and said the DfE had introduced regular monitoring and reporting of the conversion process, and was investing more than £30 million in academy trusts in areas facing the greatest challenges across England to boost their ability to improve other schools.

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