Problem academy chains 'not focusing on learning', as 14 are banned from expansion

Some academy chains are failing because they are too “managerial” and do not focus on learning, experts have told MPs, as it emerged that ministers have banned 14 of the organisations from taking on new schools.

The Department for Education (DfE) said the problem chains, which currently run more than 150 schools, had been barred from expanding because of concerns about their performance.

Yesterday Christine Gilbert, who chaired an independent commission of inquiry into academies last year, questioned the idea that academy chains were an intrinsically good idea.

“We saw some really good chains such as Ark,” the former Ofsted chief schools inspector told the Commons Education Select Committee.

“We saw some really poor ones and I could have told you a year ago what would happen to some of those chains because their focus was not on learning. It was very managerial and the focus wasn’t on teaching and its impact.”

Sam Freedman, a former adviser to education secretary Michael Gove, appearing before the same committee, agreed that chains could struggle, “where they are just doing back office services, where there is nothing to drive education improvement”. 

Last month problems with academy chains were highlighted when the DfE said it was taking “swift action to address underperformance” and stripping one of the biggest chains - E-Act - of ten of its 34 schools.

Similar concerns prompted a ban on expansion last March at the biggest chain, the Academies Enterprise Trust (AET), which runs 77 schools. The ban is still in place although some projects which were already in the pipeline have been allowed to continue.     

A Parliamentary answer has now unveiled much wider problems, disclosing that another 12 academy chains are currently banned from sponsoring more academies or free schools.

They include the Academy Transformation Trust (ATT), with 16 schools; University of Chester Academies Trust (UCAT), with nine; Prospects Academies Trust, with six; the Barnfield Academies Trust and the Landau Foundation, with five each; and the Learning Schools Trust, with four.

Education minister Edward Timpson said: “When we do have concerns about the performance of academy sponsors, we act quickly by stopping them from taking on new projects, so that they focus on their existing schools and ensure that pupils receive a good education.

“Only when sponsors have demonstrated this are they then able to take on new academies.”

But the situation has improved, new government figures suggest. They say that in November 25 academy chains had been banned from expansion.

Mr Freedman, now director of research at Teach First, told the MPs that academy chains did well when they focused on teaching. They were also able to “manage talent” and offer career progression for good teachers they wanted to hold on to.

But Ms Gilbert said: “It is really interesting to hear you talk so positively and warmly about the chains because we didn’t find, even with the centralised model, the impact that you are describing at all.”

The other academy chains currently banned from expansion are the Djanogly Learning Trust and the Grace Foundation, with three schools each; and the City of Wolverhampton Academy Trust, the Lee Chapel Academy Trust, South Nottingham College Academy Trust, and the West Hertfordshire Teaching Schools Partnership, with two schools each.

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