Schools should join academy chains of 30 or more, research claims

Richard Vaughan

All schools should join academy chains of 30 or more to enjoy economies of scale and improve teaching across the board, a report published today has said.

Research released by the right-leaning thinktank Reform claims schools should link up with larger chains to make savings of “between 5 and 8 per cent”, which can then be reinvested by hiring experts to boost teaching.

Too many schools suffer from poor-quality governance and CPD, the study adds, but large chains can invest in what it describes as a “corporate centre”, which could be used to improve expertise in these areas.

The report, produced by management consultancy Parthenon-EY, criticises the amount of cash chains currently hold back – typically around 4 per cent of the school budgets they oversee – and claims more could be achieved if they “substantially increase the cash they hold in the corporate centre”.

Despite the study's enthusiasm for federalisation, there have been a number of high-profile cases of large academy chains falling foul of the Department for Education because of concerns about standards.

In 2013, the country’s largest academy chain, Academies Enterprise Trust (AET), which runs 77 schools, was effectively barred from taking over any further schools until it improved the quality of education it was providing.

And last year, Ofsted criticised the culture of “low expectations” among the chain’s schools, adding that it was failing to give pupils a good enough education.

Similar problems have been found at E-Act, which had 10 of its schools taken away by the DfE amid concerns over standards.

And in July last year, Ofsted again condemned the Kemnal Academies Trust, which manages 41 schools, stating an “overwhelming proportion” of pupils were not receiving a good enough education.

But the Reform report says that both E-Act and AET lacked the governance to cope with their rapid expansion, and “neither took adequate measures, such as the structural decisions they are taking now, to address the issues”.

Amy Finch, education lead at the thinktank, said: “This research suggests school groups can play a vital role in redirecting resources to deliver better teaching. Recent high-profile failures should not obscure the contribution that well-governed chains can make.”

According to the researchers, 84 per cent of academies are either stand-alone schools or belong to a group of 10 schools or fewer. Only 7 per cent are in a group of more than 30 schools.

Matthew Robb, managing director at Parthenon-EY, said the next government should prioritise merging schools into bigger chains.

"The prevalent model of stand-alone schools does not bring the professionalism, accountability and economies of scale that chains can provide,” he said. “The incoming government should provide the right incentives to encourage schools to join into groups to drive professionalisation in teaching and better outcomes for students."

Related stories: 

Ofsted criticises ‘low expectations’ at AET academy chain September 2014

Ofsted criticises another academy chain for 'key weaknesses' in teaching – July 2014

E-Act academy chain condemned by Ofsted for poor standards – March 2014

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Richard Vaughan

Richard has been writing about politics, policy and technology in education for nearly five years after joining TES in 2008. He joined TES from the building press having been a reporter and then later news editor at the Architects’ Journal. Before then he studied at Cardiff University’s school of journalism. Richard can be found tweeting at @richardvaughan1

Find me on Twitter @RichardVaughan1

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