Top universities aren't interested in sponsoring academies, research finds

Instead, study shows that prestigious universities are more interested in setting up new free schools

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Most of the UK’s most prestigious universities have turned down the chance to sponsor struggling schools through the government’s academy programme, research reveals.

Only four out of the 41 top-ranking universities have chosen to sponsor individual academies or to run a multi-academy trust. Instead, when high-status universities choose to become involved in the managing of state schools, they do so through the government's free-schools programme.

The government has repeatedly said that it is keen for universities to sponsor academies and academy chains.

However, Nadia Edmond, principal lecturer in education at the University of Brighton, found that high-status universities considered investing in academies a financial risk. Others feared that taking on a school that had previously struggled may have an adverse effect on their reputation.

'Low status'

Dr Edmond analysed the involvement of 23 universities named by the Department for Education as the lead sponsors of individual academies, multi-academy trusts or free schools.

She then arranged each of these universities by status, using research by another academic that ranked higher-education institutions from Oxford and Cambridge (cluster one) to the lowest-performing (cluster four).

Thirteen of the 23 universities were involved in sponsoring one or more formerly struggling schools. Only four of these were categorised as high-status universities; the other nine were all former polytechnics, from cluster three.

Six universities sponsored multi-academy trusts made up of previously struggling schools. All six came from the two lowest-status clusters: three and four.

By contrast, the seven universities involved in setting up completely new institutions, including free schools, are all from the two highest-status clusters of universities. The University of Cambridge was among them, having established its own university training school.

Dr Edmond also cited a report from earlier this year, showing that half of academies were in deficit. She, therefore, suggested that academy sponsorship could be a financial risk for universities.

'A distraction'

Dr Edmond’s paper will be presented today, at the annual British Educational Research Association conference, held at the University of Sussex. In it, she concluded that some high-status universities, such as Oxford, were “rejecting outright the sponsoring of schools, seeing it as a distraction from their core mission.

“Perhaps conscious of the risks involved, many have preferred instead to maintain partnership arrangements which make the expertise and reach of the university a resource for all local schools and their staff and pupils.”

Last year, the government called for universities to commit to sponsoring or setting up new schools, in exchange for the ability to charge higher fees. Theresa May has since reiterated her support for this policy.

The track record of those universities that have sponsored academies is not strong. Last December, figures revealed that 57 per cent of university-sponsored academies were found by Ofsted to be less than "good".

And this week the Education Central Multi-Academy Trust, a 13-school academy chain sponsored by the University of Wolverhampton, was told by Ofsted that it urgently needed to strengthen its support for secondary-school improvement.  

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