Academies: The $64,000 question

Written by: Jack Worth | Published:
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Does academy conversion raise standards? This key question has been long argued over, especially since 2010. New research from NFER attempts to provide some answers. Jack Worth looks at the findings

More than 5,000 local authority-maintained schools in England have become academies over the last 15 years, most since 2010, in the largest structural change to the school system in decades.

Academies are now an established part of the English school landscape, and the government announced an ambition for every school to become an academy in its 2015 Educational Excellence Everywhere White Paper.
Measures to encourage more schools to become academies are expected to be included in the Education for All Bill expected later this term.

More than half of secondary schools are already academies compared to only one in five primary schools, so the vast majority of new academies are likely to be primary schools.

However, the legislation is expected to focus on maintained schools in local authorities that “can no longer viably support (their) remaining schools because a critical mass of schools in that area has converted”, and “where the local authority consistently fails to meet a minimum performance threshold across its schools”.

While the detail of these proposals is not yet known – it is certainly expected that many local authority-maintained secondary schools will be affected by such measures. But what impact has academy status had on the attainment of pupils in the secondary schools that have become academies so far?

Much of the existing evidence on the effect that academy status has had on pupil attainment is based on the experience of schools that became academies before 2010.

However, NFER’s recent research on academies has looked at attainment in the more recent set of schools that became academies since 2010. We analysed the 2015 key stage 4 results of sponsored and converter academies that have been open for at least five years, and compared them with groups of similar local authority-maintained schools that have not become academies.

As you will know, converter academies are schools with “good” or “outstanding” Ofsted ratings that chose to convert to academy status, while sponsored academies are mostly underperforming schools that converted to academy status and are run by sponsors such as businesses, universities, other schools, faith groups or voluntary groups, who have majority control of the academy trust.

Comparing attainment between schools to tease out what difference the school structure makes is challenging because of the many other things that make those schools different. Converter academies tend to have higher attainment on average than the typical maintained school, but as their attainment was higher before they became an academy it is difficult to identify what effect becoming an academy had on attainment.

On the other hand, sponsored academies tend to have lower levels of attainment, but also had lower levels of attainment before converting. Comparing the average attainment in schools of different types does not compare like with like.

We carefully selected maintained schools that we could use to make comparisons with academies that are as fair as possible: schools that had the same level of attainment, Ofsted rating, proportion of free school meal pupils, and number of pupils at the time that the academies converted.

We also took account of the intake ability of pupils sitting key stage 4 exams in 2015, measuring the amount of “value added’ progress they made between key stage 2 and 4.

The results of our comparisons are somewhat mixed, but show that attainment was generally slightly higher in academies than in similar maintained schools.

For example, the proportion of pupils achieving five A* to C grades at GCSE including English and maths was 2.7 percentage points higher in sponsored academies than in similar maintained schools, and 1.1 percentage points higher in converter academies than in similar maintained schools.

However, there was no difference between academies and similar maintained schools in terms of their average capped GCSE point score, excluding equivalent qualifications.

We also found some evidence of a trend towards greater improvement the longer a sponsored academy has been open, but there could be several explanations for this. It could reflect academy status taking time to “bed-in” before having an effect on pupil attainment.

On the other hand, the amount of Department for Education (DfE) funding available to sponsors when a school became a sponsored academy reduced by 83 per cent between 2010 and 2014 (according to the National Audit Office).

The sponsored academies that opened earlier received more start-up funding when they became academies, and this investment could have given these schools a one-off attainment boost that won’t continue to accumulate over time.

The policy implications

Based on the performance of existing academies, this evidence suggests that making all remaining local authority-maintained schools into academies could make a small difference to pupil performance in the first few years.

However, the average differences in attainment between sponsored and converter academies and similar maintained schools are very small compared with how much attainment varies between schools, which raises some questions about whether all schools becoming academies is the best use of government resources.

This conclusion comes from comparing the performance of different school types at the same point in time. We are not able to measure what the system-wide impact of more schools becoming academies has been on attainment, either in the short-term or what it is likely to be in the longer term.

What should my school do?

The average differences in attainment between academies and similar maintained schools are very small when compared with how much attainment varies between all schools. Academy status explains very little of the variation in pupil progress between schools.

Each school’s experience of academy status is likely to be quite different to that of others, and little research has so far been conducted to determine which schools are making academy status work best for them, and how.

Each school’s own decision of whether or not to become an academy encompasses a wide set of considerations and will depend on its context (if indeed it has the choice – measures in the Education and Adoption Bill mean that all schools rated inadequate by Ofsted will become academies, and Regional Schools Commissioners have the discretionary power to impose an academy order on schools defined as “coasting”).

Governors and school leaders should carefully consider the pros and cons of how being an academy might affect how it operates, and thereby enable it to, or hinder it from, delivering the best quality education for its pupils.

Schools that are already academies may have further structural decisions to make as well. The 2015 White Paper made clear that the government expects “most schools will form or join multi-academy trusts (MATs)”.

Joining a MAT has been described by many as like a marriage with no prospect of divorce. The DfE describes MATs as “the best long-term formal arrangement for stronger schools to support the improvement of weaker schools”.

Schools considering joining a MAT should assess what benefits might come from a formal grouping, alongside carefully considering whether they share the same vision of education as the other schools.

A formal grouping of schools also needs a leader, usually an executive headteacher, with the right skills and a remit and responsibilities that match the schools’ strategic priorities.

Executive headteachers: What’s in a name?

This NFER report released in July 2016 found that the number of executive headteachers (EHTs) in England is rapidly increasing, even though their responsibilities are largely undefined. Key findings from the report are:

  • As schools continue to form groups, demand for EHTs is likely to increase.
  • There is currently no legal definition for EHTs, leading to multiple sector interpretations of the role.
  • EHTs need high levels of strategic thinking, and skills in coaching and delegating. They need to ensure consistency and collaboration across their schools and have a strong capacity to look outward.


In short, structural change within the school system is set to continue, potentially affecting both maintained schools and academies not already part of a MAT.

School leaders and governors will need to regularly review what structure will best enable them to deliver high quality education for pupils.

  • Jack Worth is a research manager at NFER’s Centre for Statistics.

Further information


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