Teachers and school leaders are currently facing an array of challenges – funding shortfalls, a teacher recruitment and retention crisis and questions over the safety of some buildings, to name but three. It may therefore seem like a curious time to be discussing the structure of the state school system, most notably the future direction of academies and Local Authority (LA) maintained schools. On the contrary, the existing school system – in which around half of state-funded pupils attend academies and the other half attend LA schools – has become undesirable and unsustainable for two reasons. First, operating two parallel systems with different approaches to funding, curricula, governance, admissions and oversight has created a fragmented and confusing landscape that leaves everyone from local parents to national politicians worse off. Second, considering the wider challenges facing schools, it has never been more important to make sure that every pound invested by government contributes to improving teaching and learning, yet propping up two separate school systems is inherently wasteful and makes it harder to ensure that public funds are reaching the classroom.
Around 20 years after the first ‘academy’ school was created in England, this report argues that it now makes sense to establish one set of structural arrangements that apply to every mainstream state school. Once these arrangements are in place, all the available energy and resources can be directed to those aspects of policy – namely, teaching and learning along with high-quality leadership – that have been shown to make the most difference to pupils’ outcomes. Consequently, this report aims to construct a new framework for state education that is based on the following three principles:
- COHERENCE: the roles and responsibilities for all stakeholders in the school system should be easily understood and minimise potential conflicts of interests, while any decision-making powers should rest with the individuals or organisations who have the most suitable knowledge and expertise.
- COLLABORATION: all state-funded schools should be working together, both formally and informally, to promote the best interests of pupils – particularly the most vulnerable and disadvantaged children and young people.
- TRANSPARENCY: taxpayers have a right to know how, where and when their money is being spent on schools as well as being confident that the available funding is being put to its best possible use.
As the analysis in this report shows, the current state school system is failing to promote these three principles, and in some cases is actively working against them, to the detriment of pupils, parents and local communities.
The Department for Education (DfE)’s 2022 Schools White Paper admitted that “the system that has evolved over the past decade is messy and often confusing” and that “this confusion can have damaging consequences for children, especially the most disadvantaged and vulnerable.” Unfortunately, the messiness shows no signs of abating. LAs have seen their role in overseeing schools drastically curtailed over the past 20 years in the pursuit of ‘full academisation’ as well as having their own funding for school improvement reduced to zero. Despite this backdrop, the 2022 White Paper planned to reverse the longstanding ban on LAs setting up their own ‘multi-academy trust’ (MAT) on the grounds that it was “a barrier to some of the best local authority maintained schools supporting other schools to succeed”, but this proposal was abruptly cancelled soon afterwards – much to the frustration of many stakeholders. This illustrates how LAs are still beset by a lack of clarity over their future role, even though maintained schools continue to educate millions of pupils.
At the same time as LAs have seen their responsibilities reduced, the DfE’s nine ‘Regional Directors’ (RDs) have been given a much wider range of powers to manage the school system. Even so, concerns persist that the geographical regions covered by each RD are far too large to build the local intelligence and relationships needed to oversee schools effectively. That the RDs do not have to consult LAs or maintained school representatives about the decisions they make only adds to suspicions that the DfE is trying to centralise control over schools rather than involving local stakeholders. This unwarranted centralisation becomes even more problematic when LAs retain the legal duty to ensure that there are enough school places in their local area but RDs and the DfE decide when and where academies open and close.
This incoherence between academies and maintained schools is visible in many other areas. For example, maintained schools must follow the National Curriculum whereas academies have more autonomy over what and how they teach. Some academies and MATs have shortened the length of Key Stage 3 (ages 11-14) from three years to two, but this has been widely criticised for reducing the breadth and depth of subjects available to pupils. Another issue is that the pay scales of headteachers and senior leaders in maintained schools are set out in a legal framework whereas academies and MATs only need to ensure that their decisions about executive pay are “reasonable and defensible”. While many MATs appear to show a commendable level of restraint in this regard, others are behaving inappropriately – in some cases, handing out almost £200,000 for running a single school (almost double what a maintained school headteacher can receive) or around £300,000 for running two schools. In short, some trusts are taking advantage of the leniency afforded to them on executive pay, and in doing so are diverting precious funding away from pupils and teachers.
Despite the DfE insisting that they expect all schools and trusts to ‘work closely with each other’, collaborative efforts often occur despite the school system, not because of it. For instance, the admissions system has become increasingly unmanageable because academies and MATs can set their own admissions policies. In some areas, there are thought to be over 200 policies in operation. Admissions for maintained schools “are almost always clear” but other schools use “unnecessarily complex” policies that “appear to be more likely to enable the school to choose which children to admit”. This helps explain why 83 per cent of complaints about admission policies in 2022 related to academies.
Such problems extend to in-year applications as well. If a child cannot secure a school place, a ‘Fair Access Protocol’ (FAP) – developed by the LA – aims to ensure that “unplaced and vulnerable children, and those who are having difficulty in securing a school place in-year, are allocated a school place as quickly as possible.” However, despite all schools being required to follow their local FAP, some schools ‘resist’ the admission of children with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities or an Education, Health and Care Plan. In other words, the tension between wanting to be ‘inclusive’ and deliver better examination results is putting the interests of the most vulnerable pupils at risk. If a maintained school refuses to admit a pupil under the FAP then the LA can force them to do so, but if an academy refuses then the LA has to apply to the DfE for a ‘direction’ to admit them – demonstrating again why more clarity over the role of LAs is critical to the functioning of the overall system.
The lack of collaboration between schools and LAs has begun boiling over into public rows over how to handle the number of available places. LAs are powerless to stop many schools from increasing or decreasing their pupil intake even though the knock-on consequences can be huge – particularly if higher or lower intakes affects the viability of nearby schools. Demographic changes could make the situation worse, with the number of state-funded primary school pupils set to fall by almost a fifth by 2032. Allowing competition to trump collaboration on such basic questions as ‘how many school places do we need, and where’ is clearly not in the best interests of pupils or their families.
Given this dearth of collaborative structures in some areas, many schools have opted to join informal ‘partnerships’ that can be anything from a handful of schools within an LA to hundreds of schools across an entire region. Although research evidence on the impact of such partnerships is underdeveloped, the schools that participate frequently report outcomes such as more opportunities for professional development, better sharing of knowledge and teaching resources, greater cohesion at a local level and building a wider pool of expertise. This illustrates why collaboration will remain a potential driver of school improvement.
The use of local governing bodies (LGBs) to oversee maintained schools ensures that they remain rooted in the communities that they serve and provides a transparent view of decisions regarding a school’s future. Although academies and MATs are overseen by a board of ‘trustees’ rather than governors, many have chosen to adopt some form of local governance. That said, the powers given to LGBs within a MAT are entirely at the trust’s discretion and surveys suggest that around a quarter of MATs have rejected the idea of having one LGB per school (as you would find in the maintained sector), creating a clear imbalance in the system.
To further complicate matters, every academy and MAT has ‘members’ that sit above the board of trustees “who have a similar role to shareholders of a company limited by shares.” Members are not supposed to interfere with the running of schools, yet they can appoint themselves as trustees and can also direct the trustees to take specific actions if they deem it necessary. Worse still, there is no requirement for members to publish details of any meetings they hold, decisions they make or interactions they have with trustees, nor is there a formal channel through which parents or LAs can contact the members or challenge their decisions or conduct – all of which raises serious issues from a governance perspective.
The work of the ‘Advisory Boards’ that support RDs in each region are equally opaque. These Boards are generally made up of current and former academy headteachers, MAT CEOs and trustees, but there is no representation from LAs or maintained schools. The advice, scrutiny and challenge that these Boards offer their RD, including on crucial decisions about who should operate or take over a struggling school, is provided ‘behind closed doors’ despite repeated complaints about this approach. Parents and communities are often unaware that these Advisory Boards even exist, and the DfE restricts public involvement in the Board’s decisions to little more than sending in an email no more than five days before a Board meeting. As a result, just one in 10 such meetings have any representations from the public.
Transparency over school finances fares little better. Maintained schools must provide an annual statement of their income, expenditure and balances. The exact funding allocations for every maintained school from their LA are also published. At the same time, MATs do not publish details of how much money they distribute to their schools or the financial health of each school. This has become even more concerning with the increasing popularity of ‘GAG (general annual grant) pooling’, where a MAT combines all their schools’ funding into a single central pot, which makes it impossible to know if every pupil in a MAT has received the DfE’s guaranteed minimum funding or find out if a school is in financial difficulty. In truth, secrecy over the finances of academies and MATs is a longstanding problem because they are funded through a contract with the DfE. These contracts are deemed to be ‘commercially sensitive’ and are thus hidden from the public and Parliament. The contrast with maintained schools, whose roles and responsibilities are set out in legislation, could hardly be greater.
Every day, tens of thousands of teachers and leaders turn up to work and educate millions of pupils in state-funded schools, yet many elements of our school system continue to hinder their commendable efforts. Moreover, the politicisation of debates over who should run state schools has been deeply unhelpful as it has created a constant distraction from the goal of improving the life chances of children and young people. This report concludes that three major shifts are now required to move beyond previous (often ideological) disagreements.
First, the language of ‘academies’ and ‘academisation’ has become politically toxic and also means little or nothing to parents, which is why it should be dropped in favour of the more neutral language of ‘School Boards’. Second, there needs to be a recognition that for all the benefits that the last 20 years has brought for some schools, policymakers have also made mistakes and misjudgements that left many concerning issues unaddressed – most notably, the centralisation of power in the DfE and the failure to curb financial excesses in some schools and trusts. Third, there is an urgent need for clarity over the roles and responsibilities of all stakeholders – particularly LAs – because trying to ‘muddle through’ with the current setup will mean that many pupils, especially the most vulnerable and disadvantaged, do not get the support that they need and deserve.
By enacting these three shifts, the following recommendations aim to create a coherent, collaborative and transparent approach to state schooling in England that leaves behind the political baggage of the past and focuses on building a new system that helps teachers and leaders devote more time, money and resources to improving teaching and learning – something that all political parties can, and should, support.
Creating a new framework for state-funded schools
- RECOMMENDATION 1: To bring an end to the micromanagement of the state-funded school system in England, a new legal framework should be introduced – the Education Act 2025 – to set out the rules and regulations for all state schools.
- RECOMMENDATION 2: To create a more coherent school system, all state-funded schools will be run by one of three types of ‘school boards’: (i) Single School Board (SSB): runs an individual school – similar to an existing maintained school or standalone academy; (ii) Local School Board (LSB): a new grouping of schools set up by the local authority – similar to the recent proposals from the DfE for ‘LA trusts’; (iii) Independent School Board (ISB): a group of schools that operates outside of local authority control – similar to an existing multi-academy trust.
- RECOMMENDATION 3: To ensure that School Boards operate in an open and transparent manner, all three types of Board will be overseen by a single set of trustees that delegate the running of schools either directly to school leaders (in SSBs and LSBs) or to an executive team who manages the schools (in ISBs). There will also no longer be a separate set of ‘members’ within the governance structures for most School Boards.
- RECOMMENDATION 4: To unwind the centralisation and political interference in our state school system, a new independent regulator should be created: the Office for Capacity and Oversight in Education (OFCOE). The regulator will be responsible for intervening in underperforming schools, overseeing finance and governance arrangements and strategically managing primary and secondary education in each local area e.g. opening and closing schools.
- RECOMMENDATION 5: To ensure that the status and operator of every school is decided in an open and transparent manner, OFCOE will hold public hearings and local consultations on all the major decisions relating to schools and School Boards (e.g. who should run a new school; which School Board should take on an unperforming school).
Promoting local voices in the school system
- RECOMMENDATION 6: To provide local authorities with clarity and direction over their role within the state school system, their core purpose will be to act as ‘champion’ for all children and young people in their local area.
- RECOMMENDATION 7: To prioritise the pupils’ interests, local authorities should be put in charge of a clear and coherent admissions system for all state schools. Schools will therefore no longer act as their own ‘admission authority’. Local authorities should also once again coordinate in-year admissions.
- RECOMMENDATION 8: To ensure that School Boards are connected to the local communities in which they operate, local governing bodies (LGBs) should be made a compulsory requirement for all state schools. Decisions made by LGBs should be publicly available along with the agenda and minutes of any meetings.
- RECOMMENDATION 9: To encourage more collaboration in the school system, the Department for Education should provide ‘seed funding’ for new local partnerships in areas that do not yet have one. These partnerships should be rigorously evaluated for their impact on pupils and schools over time.
Improving value-for-money and financial transparency
- RECOMMENDATION 10: To eradicate excessive pay packages within the new school landscape, the Government should force all School Boards to adhere to a new national pay scale that sets the salary ranges for all senior leaders and CEOs.
- RECOMMENDATION 11: To ensure all stakeholders can see how public money is being spent in the school system, School Boards should be funded directly by the Department for Education (via the ESFA). ‘GAG pooling’ should also be banned in future.
- RECOMMENDATION 12: To create transparency over the financial circumstances of all state-funded schools, every school should be required to publish an annual breakdown of their income, expenditure, balances and staffing (both numbers and leadership salaries) on their website.