Academies in England and Wales

Academies were first introduced under New Labour in the year 2000 to drive up standards and improve equality of opportunity. However academies under the coalition and the new Tories have been more about creating a quasi market in education.

Academy schools are state funded schools which are independent of Local Education Authorities (LEAs), unlike ‘community schools’ which are subject to more Local Education Authority control and receive their funding from them.

Academies receive their funding directly from the government and have the freedom to manage their own budgets, fire and hire staff, set their own daily timetable and term dates and do not have to follow the national curriculum.

Every academy is required to be part of an academy trust (AT), which is a charity and company limited by guarantee. They can seek additional funding from companies, philanthropists, charities or religious organisations, and are non-profit organisations.

They were first introduced under the New Labour Government in the late 1990s and have gradually replaced schools managed by Local Education authorities.

Some academies are run as part of a multi-academy trust (MATs) such as Harris-Academies where several schools are run under one centralised management structure.

Most of the early academies chose to become academies, but some have been forced to convert away from LEA control to academies following an ‘in need of improvement’ grading by OFSTED, many of these converter academies having to choose an MAT to manage them.

Like community (LEA) schools academies are inspected by OFSTED and follow the same nationally imposed rules regarded exclusions and Special Educational Needs provision.

Types of Academy

There are three main types of academy schools: sponsored, converter and free schools.

Sponsored Academies

Sponsored academies were the first type of academy, established under New Labour in the year 2000. They are typically underperforming schools which have failed an OFSTED inspection and have been required to move away from LEA control and become academies.

In the early days sponsors were businesses, philanthropists, charities or religious organisations but today well established successful academies or MATs can be sponsors and take over failing schools.

Converter Academies

These are already existing schools under Local Education Authority control which have voluntarily chosen to become academies.

There are certain advantages to a school becoming an academy – more control over its affairs and the fact that they save on 15% VAT on goods and services which they don’t pay, unlike LEA schools.

Converter academies are the main type of academy today and account for 2/3rds of existing academies.

Free Schools

Free Schools are newly created schools which are run as academies.

Free Schools were introduced under the Coalition Government in 2011 and are typically established by local interest groups who want a better standard of education for their children.

So far they have been established by groups of parents, teachers, charities, businesses and faith groups.

A History of Academies

City Academies were first introduced in the year 2000 under New Labour and then saw a rapid expansion under both the Coalition (2010-2015) and Tory governments (2015 to present day).

Academies under New Labour

Academies were first launched as ‘city academies’ in 2000 under the New Labour (1997 to 2010) government, and Lord Adonis, then education advisor to the Labour government, is credited with their establishment.

Most early academies were ‘sponsored academies’ – they were failing LEA schools in deprived urban areas which were shut down and then re-opened under new management as academies and in the early 2000s huge amounts of capital funding was injected into these early academies.

In 2002 the prefix ‘city’ was removed to allow schools in non urban areas to join the academies programme.

The rationale behind academies was that they would raise educational standards through increasing diversity and choice and encouraging competition between schools – and they are thus an expansion of the ‘marketisation’ of education introduced by the previous Tory government.

Early academies were founded and governed by sponsors including businesses, charities and universities, with funding initially capped at £2 million per school. (This cap was lifted in 2009).

New Labour’s early academies had a greater intake of Free School Meals students and the hope was that by making them independent of LEA control and introducing private sponsorship they would encourage a culture of high aspirations among students and thus break the cycle of deprivation.

This focus on combining marketisation and social justice concerned is very characteristic of the third way ethos which lay behind many of New Labour’s policies.

Mossbourne Community Academy

An example of a successful early academy is Mossbourne Academy in Hackney, which was opened in 2004 with a capital budget of £23 million being spent on shiny new school buildings.

Mossbourne Academy students lining up before lessons

The first headmaster of Mossbourne Academy was (now) Sir Michael Wilshaw, who went on to become the chief inspector for OFSTED. He instigated a regime of high expectations of all students with strict rules about not only attendance and punctuality but also strict dress code.

Teachers were required to work long hours as were students deemed to be in need of extra help to reach their target grades with additional after school lessons and Saturday lessons part of the weekly regime for those who required them.

The school also set up a range of extra curricular activities emulating private schools such as a debating and rowing club – increasing access to cultural capital for those students who took up these opportunties.

Mossbourne was extremely successful in getting its students excellent grades but there is a question mark over how much of this was down to the extreme amount of initial funding injected into this flagship academy project.

By 2006 there were 46 academies established, half of these in London, which had capital and operating costs of £1.3 billion.

By 2010 there were 203 Academies up and running.

Academies under the Coalition

The Coalition identified academies as one of their main education policies for simultaneously raising standards and improving equality of educational opportunity by narrowing the achievement gap.

The Coalition government pursued the setting up of academies even more enthusiastically than the previous New Labour government, their aim being to make it the norm for all state schools to be academies, rather than just for failing schools and schools in deprived areas as had been the case previously.

The new Coalition Education Secretary Michael Gove wrote to all head teachers in 2010 informing them that all secondary and primary schools would be invited to convert to secondary school status, and schools with and OUTSTANDING status from OFSTED would be fast tracked through the process of conversion.

In 2011 the academy conversion process was extended to all schools doing well, and other schools not classified as doing well good convert to academies if they joined already existing academy chains which were doing well.

Fast tracked schools were required to support at least one weaker school, the idea being that better schools would partner with weaker schools and help them improve.

The Coalition also continued with ‘forced academisation’, in June 2011 the government announced that it would be forcing the weakest 200 schools to become academies, under new management, typically an already existing well-performing academy or academy trust.

The 2010 academies act also made it a requirement for all new schools to be either academies or free schools (see below) – this prevented the Local Education Authorities from setting up new schools.

Michael Gove also introduced legislation which allowed for the establishment of Free Schools – entirely new academies which allowed teachers, parents or religious groups (for example) to set up a new school in their own area if they were not satisfied with local provision. By the end of the Coalition government 254 Free Schools had been opened.

All through the five years of the coalition government the academies programme continued at a rapid pace – by the end of the New Labour government in 2010 there were 203 academies, and within nine months of the coalition this had doubled to 442 academies.

By the time of the general election in 2015 there were just over 5000 academies in England and Wales, which was 40% of all secondary schools.

The rapid rise of academies during the Coalition is down to two factors primarily:

  1. The streamlined application process made it a lot faster to convert
  2. There were financial benefits to becoming academies – independent control of budgets (rather than LEA control) made finances easier to manage and there was additional central funding available, all during a time of austerity which made converting very appaling.

West and Baily (2013) have suggested that while New Labour saw academies as a way of solving the problem of failing schools the Coalition used setting them up en masse to enact system wide change towards a more marketised education system.

Academies since 2015

When the Tories came to Power in 2015 David Cameron’s stated aim was to achieve full academisation, that is he wanted ALL schools to become academies.

A 2016 white paper proposed that all schools had to start converting to academies by 2020 and that any that hadn’t would be instructed to do so by 2022, the idea being that the Local Education Authorities would have no role in management education by 2022.

However, there was resistance to this forced academisation, especially by primary schools which were doing well and were reluctant to hand over control to relatively new Multi Academy Trusts and these plans were relaxed and the government focused its efforts on ‘encouraging’ LEA schools to convert voluntarily rather than forcing them.

Even so the number of academies continued to increase rapidly under the Tory government and by 2020 the number of academies had risen to over 9000, an increase of around 1000 per year, and most of these converter academies.

There are also new national structures in place now to regulate academies:

  • The Education and Skills Funding Agency regulates funding
  • The Schools Commissioners Group made up of eight regional commissioners for schools monitors academies in their regions.

The growth of Academies in England and Wales

The total number of academies in England and Wales has grown rapidly since 2010, although the rate of growth has slowed in more recent years.

  • In 2009 to 2010 there were a total of 133 academies
  • By 2019/ 2020 there were a total of 9200 academies

The total number of academies increased by 5% between 2018/2019 to 2019/2020, but this figure would have been lowered because of the impact of Covid, as schools focused on dealing with safe re-opening and helping pupils catch up rather than converting to academy status.

Growth of academies in England and Wales 2009 to 2020

Key for the above table:

  • Dark blue = sponsored academies
  • Light blue = converter academies
  • Mid blue (smallest) = Free Schools.

There are more secondary than primary academies…

  • In 2020 78% of secondary schools were academies, 22% where LEA run schools
  • This compares to 36% of primary schools being academies, 54% remain under LEA control.

Multi Academy Trusts

Source: FFL datalabs

The number of schools in MATs has increased since 2018, with the largest increase being for schools in trusts with 6-10 schools, with 25% of schools being in trusts of 6-10 schools.

Approximately:

  • 15% of schools are single schools
  • 40% are in small trusts of 2-9 schools
  • 25% are in large trusts of 10-19 schools
  • 20% are in very large trusts of 20+ schools

The average number of schools in a trust has increased from 5 to 7 schools in the last four years to 2022 and the largest trust today has 75 schools in it.

Evaluations of Academies

There has been criticism of how far New Labour’s early academies managed to break the cycle of deprivation (Gorand 2009, Pricewaterhouse Coopers, 2008)

Under the coalition the Local Education Authority system of provision of schooling was dismantled – this involved democratically elected bodies planning appropriate educational provision for a local area. This has now been replaced with a greater diversity of provision, increased competition between schools and greater involvement of non-elected officials (sponsors) in how local schooling is run (Walford 2014)

As a result there is now a lack of accountability to the local communities in which academies exist because there is no LEA control.

Funding arrangements for academies are agreed between the secretary of state and the management company of the academy – this means there is no ‘democratic oversight’ of funding arrangements – sponsors are effectively operating outside of the democratic process (Ward and Eden (2009).

While the government speaks of ‘diversity and choice’ another way of looking at this is that they have created a fragmented education system – when there is no local planning for provision you get overlap and inefficiencies, especially where Free Schools are concerned!

Multi Academy Trusts vary in their degrees of competence, and for those schools which are still under LEA control, they may be better off remaining so, BUT LEAs now get much less funding because so much of it has been siphoned off to the academy trusts, so they may not be able to offer as much support in the future.

In short, it’s possible that academisation has gone so far and now LEAs are so weakened that full academisation is possibly now inevitable.

Signposting and Relevance to A-Level Sociology

This material is primarily relevant to the education aspect of the AQA’s A-Level Sociology specification.

Sources/ References

Barlett and Burton (2021): Introduction to Education Studies, fifth edition

Academy Schools Sector in England Consolidated Annual Report and Accounts For the year ended 31 August 2020, HC 851

Education Data Lab – stats on academies in England and Wales.

Politics.co.uk on Academies – a useful summary of some of the Key Facts about academies.

Coalition Education Policy (2010-2015)

The coalition government continued the marketisation of education. They introduced Free schools, forced acadamisation, increased university tuition fees, but also the Pupil Premium.

In May 2010 the Conservative-Liberal Democratic Coalition government came to power. The Conservatives were the more dominant party and their views were correspondingly more strongly represented in educational policy.

Michael Gove
Michael Gove – The Education Secretary under the Coalition Government – Tended to Listen to Himself rather than Education Professionals.

An ideological commitment to cutting public spending framed Coalition policy more broadly, and spending on education fell in real terms during this period, reflecting the strong influence of New Right/ neoliberal ideas on education during this period.

Most of the Coalitions education policies were designed to introduce more choice, competition and efficiency into the education market (furthering marketisation) such policies include:

  • Forced academisation
  • Free Schools
  • Increasing university tuition fees

Some policies were nominally aimed at promoting equality of educational opportunity, namely:

  • The pupil premium
  • Introducing bursary schemes for some further and higher education students

Although it is debatable how committed the coalition was to improving equality of educational opportunity because their marketisation policies increased inequality and they scrapped some of New Labour’s previous policies such as the Education Maintenance Allowance.

In reality their policies to ‘improve’ equality in education were weak and probably put in place to make it look like they were doing something rather than actually effectively promoting equality of opportunity.

The rest of this post looks at some of Coalitions education policies in more detail…

Forced Academisation 

Whereas New Labour had focused on opening up academies in the most deprived areas of the country in order to improve equality of educational opportunity,  the Coalition made it possible for any school to convert to an academy (converter academies), aiming to make academy status the norm for all schools.

Under the Academies Act of 2010, schools graded as outstanding were automatically eligible to convert to academy status (if they wished to do so) and in 2011 this was extended to all schools which were performing well.

As the academization process evolved, schools which received a satisfactory or below OFSTED grading were forced to convert to academies even when the majority of parents (90% in some cases) did not want the school to convert to an academy (sponsored academies).

Failing schools which were under the control of Local Education Authorities could either be shut down or taken under the sponsorship of already existing academies or Multi Academy Trusts.

The growth of academies under the coalition was extremely rapid…

By 2013, there were 3,304 academies in England – almost 15 times as many as in May 2010, when there were 203 academies. By the time of the general election in 2015 (the end of the Coalition) over half of all secondary schools were academies.

The Coalition also oversaw the growth of academy chains – around 2000 schools are now in academy ‘chains’  with around 400 schools leading these chains, working with others to raise standards.

Free Schools 

The Coalition also introduced a new type of school: Free Schools, which took their inspiration from Sweden.

Free School in England is a type of Academy, a non-profit-making, state-funded school which is free to attend. Free schools are not controlled by a Local Authority (LA) but instead governed by anon-profit charitable trust.

Unlike Academies, Free Schools are new schools, many of which are run by parents. They are not required to follow the national curriculum, as long as they teach English Maths and Science, and they do not have to employ qualified teachers.

Between 2010 and 2015 more than 400 free schools were approved for opening in England by the Coalition Government, representing more than 230,000 school places across the country.

Free schools are covered in much more detail in this post

Evaluations of Free Schools 

The main criticism of Free Schools are that they are a drain on other schools in the local area – if parents withdraw students from other local schools, those schools will suffer reduced funding (following formula funding), which is a problem given the fact that there will be a duplication of resources.

Evidence also suggests that Free Schools benefit children from high income households, but do nothing for children from low income households, thus they are a matter of using tax payer money to increase social class inequalities: Research by Shepherd (2012) found that free schools took in a lower proportion of FSM pupils compared to other local schools, while Rebecca Allen (2010) summarises the Swedish experience of Free Schools as one which benefits children in affluent, middle class urban areas.

You can browse Free Schools (and other school types) on Snobe.co.uk, you just have to set the Filter to ‘Free Schools’…

The Fairness Premium

The fairness premium was the coalitions main policy suite to reduce inequality of educational achievement and close the attainment gap.

The fairness premium would be used to fund disadvantaged children aged 2 to 20 and two of the main specific policies to be funded were additional pre-school education and the pupil premium

The Coalition expanded early years education so that disadvantaged two to four year olds were entitled to 15 hours per week of pre-school education, which was in addition to the 15 hours already available to three to four year olds which has been introduced under New Labour.

The aim of this early intervention was to try to address the poor language skills which disadvantaged children generally had before entering school, which represented a significant gap in cognitive development between disadvantaged children and those from wealthier backgrounds. (Research by Fenstein (2003) for example had show a pre-school gap of up to 3 months in reading ability.)

However, the additional 15 hours of schooling a week introduced by the Coalition was really a myth because they cut funding for Sure Start which was effectively doing the same thing as this initiative and so this wasn’t really anything additional at all.

The Pupil Premium 

Introduced in 2011, the Pupil Premium involved giving schools extra funding based on the number of Free School Meals (FSM) pupils they took in. Schools would received an additional £600 for every child (year 1 to year 11) who was eligible for Free School Meals or who had been looked after for six months or longer.

In 2015 the Pupil Premium was extended to include early education years.

Schools were supposed to spend their pupil premium funding specifically on helping disadvantaged pupils – for example on extra lessons for those from disadvantaged backgrounds or more one to one support, which was monitored primarily through OFSTED.

One problem with the Pupil Premium was that by 2015 the government itself admitted that children from disadvantaged backgrounds continued to get worse GCSE results, and so the policy had had limited impact on reducing the attainment gap.

In some parts of the UK more than 40% of pupils receive Pupil Premium funding (2021 figures).

Curriculum Reform

The Education secretary Michael Gove believed that New Labour’s curriculum was sub standard and so initiated a whole curriculum review, and a new curriculum framework was published in 2014

The rhetoric behind this review was that of raising standards (as it always is) but with a renewed focus on traditional subjects and forms of assessment.

Gove’s curriculum review introduced the following changes in 2014:

  • The content of the national curriculum was made more challenging but also narrower, with more of a focus on core knowledge and key skills.
  • The old levels of attainment were scrapped.
  • The Ebacc became a more important measure in league tables, which made arts and technical subjects less important as these were not in the Ebacc.
  • Coursework elements of GSCE and A-levels were scrapped and replaced with exams.
  • A technical baccalaureate was introduced for 16-18 year olds.

Higher Education Policies

The Coalition scrapped all direct funding to universities from the government with the exception of some STEM subjects and from 2012 universities were to obtain their teaching income directly from student fees. The coalition raised the limit on tuition fees for Higher Education to £9000 per student.

Tuition fees were largely funded by students loans, which were also available to students to fund their costs of living while studying and these loans were not to be paid back until graduates were earning £21 000 a year.

Most universities ended up charging the full £9000 tuition fees and these changes saw the introduction of a fully fledged market in higher education, with students now being regarded as consumers and more emphasis being put on quality of student experience.

The government also required all universities to promote fair access to HE and introduced a fees bursary scheme for students from the very lowest income households.

There was also concern at the time that a divide would open up between the traditional Russel Group universities which received additional funding from research as well as teaching and the post-1992 old Polytechnic universities which relied much more heavily on tuition fees.

Scrapping the Education Maintenance Allowance

The Coalition scrapped the EMA scheme, and replaced it with a £180 million bursary scheme, targeted at those in the very lowest income households, and given directly to schools and colleges, rather than paid to individual students.

Evaluation of Coalition Education Policies

  • Standards have continued to increase
  • The attainment gap (between FSM and non FSM pupils has decreased)
  • All this by spending less.
  • Free schools reduce funding for other local education authority schools, advantaging middle class parents
  • The scrapping of the EMA lowered the stay on rate in Further Education.
  • Considerable regional inequalities remain—for example up north and coastal areas.

Signposting and Related Posts

Coalition policies are studied as part of the AQA A-level sociology’s Education module.

Please click here to return to the homepage – ReviseSociology.com

Sources 

Haralambos and Holborn (2013) Sociology Themes and Perspectives

Barlett and Burton (2021): Introduction to Education Studies, fifth edition

2010-2015 Government Education Policy, Department for Education.

Other useful Sources 

Earlham’s Sociology Site has lots of information on Coalition Policies

 

Free Schools – Arguments and Evidence For and Against

Are free schools more successful than regular schools?

This is relevant to the educational policy aspect of the education topic within the sociology of education. It should be especially useful for evaluating coalition, or new ‘New Right’ policies.

What Are Free Schools?

A Free School in England is a type of Academy, a non-profit-making, state-funded school which is free to attend. Free schools are not controlled by a Local Authority (LA) but instead governed by anon-profit charitable trust.

To set up a Free School, founding groups submit applications to the Department for Education. Groups include those run by parents, education charities and religious groups. Ongoing funding is on an equivalent basis with other locally controlled state maintained schools, although additional start-up grants to establish the schools are also paid.

Between 2010 and 2015 more than 400 free schools were approved for opening in England by the Coalition Government, representing more than 230,000 school places across the country.

Similarities between Local Authority schools and Free Schools

  • They are both free for students to attend
  • They are both have similar amounts of funding
  • They are both subject to same rules about how the select students (they have similar admissions policies)
  • They are both subjected to Ofsted inspections

Differences between Free Schools and Regular State Schools

Local Authority SchoolsFree Schools
Must follow the National CurriculumDon’t have to follow the National Curriculum
Funding controlled by Local AuthorityFunding comes straight from government
‘standard’ school day and term timesFree to set school days and term times
Teachers must be qualifiedTeachers don’t have to be qualified

A brief history and overview of types of Free School

Free Schools were introduced by the Coalition government in 2010 general election as part of the Big Society initiative. The first 24 Free Schools opened in autumn 2011.

Since 2011, any Local Authority in need of a new school must seek proposals for an Academy or Free School, with a traditional Local Authority school only being allowed if no suitable Free School or academy is proposed. Since July 2015 the government is regarded all new academies as Free Schools – hence if there’s demand to establish them, any new school being established will be a free school.

There are currently over 500 Free Schools operating in England and Wales. In 2019 the government announced a new wave of them and there are around another 220 currently in the process of being established. (Source: EPI)

Types of free school

The majority of free schools are similar in size and shape to other types of academy. However, the following are distinctive sub-types of free school:

Studio school – A small free school, usually with around 300 pupils, using project-based learning.

University Technical College – A free school for the 14-18 age group, specialising in practical, employment focused subjects, sponsored by a university, employer or further education college.

Free Schools in England Report 2019

A recent 2019 report by the Education Policy Institute examined the performance of Free Schools, focusing especially on the kind of areas in which they are opening up.

They found mixed results depending on whether the schools were primary or secondary, but some of the key findings are as follows (NB be sure to go check the link out!)

  • Primary schools have successfully increased school places, because these tend to be open up where there is a demand (a need) for school places
  • Secondary schools have been less successful, these tend to be opened up where there are already sufficient school places.
  • Secondary free schools tend to get set up in better off areas – more than 3 times as many places have been created in affluent areas than in the poorest
  • Having said that, FSM pupils in free schools get better results than FSM pupils in other types of school
  • HOWEVER, the report notes that this is because Free Schools tend to be set up in those areas where FSM pupils do better than average (so it seems like there’s cream skimming going on!)
  • The report also notes that Free schools are more likely to be urban and ethnically mixed.

Arguments for Free Schools

Free schools are a very good example of a neoliberal policy – the government is taking power away from Local Education Authorities (local government) and giving more power to parents, private businesses and charities to run schools.

Supporters claim that:

  1. Free schools create more local competition and drive-up standards
  2. They allow parents to have more choice in the type of education their child receives, much like parents who send their children to independent schools do.
  3. They also claim that free schools benefit children from all backgrounds – which could especially be the case with….

Arguments against Free Schools

Critics argue that…

  1. Free schools benefit primarily middle-class parents with the time to set them up, fuelling social segregation – I can really see this being the case with ‘studio schools’. (I can’t help but imagine a nice, small school with extensive playground and playing fields in a Devonshire village, so nice in fact that the yummies occasionally leave their 4WDs at home and walk the school run, at least when they’re not in the mood for heels.)
  2. Free schools divert money away from existing schools – There is a set amount of money in the education budget, and if free schools (and academies) get initial start up grants from the government (which some do) this means relatively less money for the Local Education Authority maintained schools.
  3. They are not actually needed and have lead to a surplus of school places – More than half of Free Schools opening in 2012 opened with 60% or less of the student numbers predicted by the impact assessment documents of each institution, leaving more than 10% spare places. Elsewhere, where Free Schools are fully subscribed, regular Local Authority schools have surplus capacity. This replication of capacity is grossly inefficient.
  4. People don’t actually want Free Schools – Polling in April 2015 put public support for Conservative proposals to increase the number of Free Schools by at least 500 at 26%.
  5. While the image of Free schools might be of motivated parents setting them up, Peter Wilby has suggested that Free Schools would be run by private companies rather than parents, teachers or voluntary groups. There is also the fact that in 2012 over 60% of free school applications were made by faith groups.

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