It would have been hard to imagine back in 2002 when the first ‘city academy’ opened that such a small, targeted scheme aimed at replacing failing schools in urban areas would end up becoming one of the most contentious educational debates in living memory. The situation we are left with almost two decades later is complicated, to say the least. Approximately one-third of primary schools and three-quarters of secondary schools now operate as ‘academies’ i.e. state schools that are outside of local authority control. In effect, England now has two sets of state schools which are run separately from one another – local authority (‘maintained’) schools and academies. Inevitably, this has produced a fragmented and incoherent education system, with little sign of improvement on either front. What’s more, neither maintained schools or academies appear to be out-performing the other, yet considerable energy is being expended by politicians and civil servants to maintain the distinction between these two systems.
This report starts from the simple premise that it is better to have one system for state schools in England rather than two, so that all stakeholders – pupils, parents, teachers, school leaders, local communities and politicians – can judge schools on a ‘level playing field’ where every school is given the same support and opportunities to succeed. This report proposes that, instead of aiming for either a fully ‘maintained’ or fully ‘academised’ system, it is best to work with the existing landscape to build a unified system in which multiple types of schools and school groupings can flourish. Consequently, the objective of this report is to outline a new model for state education that is based on the following four principles:
1. SIMPLICITY: the state school system in England must be easily understood by every stakeholder, which requires a single set of terms and concepts to be applied across all government-funded schools.
2. COLLABORATION: schools are more likely to succeed when they work together instead of working alone, which is why close and collaborative partnerships throughout the school system should be the clear expectation for all.
3. COHERENCE: the school system should be designed in such a way that every school starts from a similar position and should be treated fairly and equally in terms of funding and accountability.
4. TRANSPARENCY: taxpayers have a right to know how, where and when their money is being spent on education. Transparency regarding the use of, and decisions related to, public funds for state schools is therefore essential.
To enact these four principles, this report identifies and analyses the disparities between maintained schools and academies with the aim of reducing, and ultimately eliminating, the gap between the two state school systems.
There are different structures in place regarding the funding, governance and management of maintained schools and academies, but these seem to offer little or no benefit to pupils and parents. For example, maintained schools and academies receive the same amount of funding from government for their pupils but academies have a ‘funding agreement’ directly with the Department for Education (DfE) whereas maintained schools receive funds via their local authority. Maintained schools must also account for how funding is spent at each individual school. In contrast, academy funding agreements, which are often not available to parents and have been repeatedly changed over the years, make it difficult – if not impossible – to understand how much individual academies within a multi-academy trust (MAT) are spending and receiving each year. This is largely because each MAT is a single legal entity, irrespective of how many schools it includes, so it only releases one set of annual accounts for the whole MAT and no further breakdowns of spending at school level are publicly available.
Several years ago, the Public Accounts Committee in Parliament warned that the way academies were financed meant it was “still not sufficiently transparent for parents to scrutinise how their child’s school is spending its money, and for communities to hold their local school to account”, particularly when less than 20% of academies were publishing their funding agreements online. The Committee concluded that “local parents, Parliament and the public cannot make a proper value-for-money comparison of individual academies and maintained schools.” These concerns remain just as relevant today.
The governance structures for maintained schools and academies are also markedly different. While maintained schools continue to be overseen by a governing body that monitors their educational outcomes and financial stability, academies are run by a combination of ‘trustees’ and ‘members’, who provide separate layers of management similar to those found in corporations. As few as three ‘members’ can exert a huge degree of control over an entire MAT, which raises doubts about the appropriateness of this governance model within an education system. The overlap between trustees and members can also generate conflicts of interest when making decisions about academies, and because academies within MATs are no longer a separate legal entity then, in some cases, there is no governing body at all left for the individual schools. The fact that academy trustees and members do not have to release any details of important decisions they make about the sustainability and viability of their schools is another unhelpful by-product of the existing arrangement.
The role of the eight ‘Regional Schools Commissioners’ (RSCs) – who are responsible for tackling underperformance in state schools, supporting maintained schools converting to academies, moving academies between MATs where necessary and approving bids for new schools – is another cause for concern. The Education Select Committee in Parliament highlighted numerous issues about how RSCs operate back in 2016, but little progress has been made since then. The opaqueness of their operations, including the use of ‘Headteacher Boards’ to guide their work, ensures that the actions of RSCs remain “clouded in elements in secrecy”. This becomes even more problematic when the only route for creating new schools is through the ‘Free Schools’ programme (Free Schools are simply new academies). The on-going confusion about the purpose and objectives of Free Schools, plus the crucial role that RSCs play in selecting who runs the schools in their area, generates more decisions about local schools that can easily become detached from the best interests of pupils and parents. The increasingly vocal protests outside some schools that are being forced to become academies is testament to the breakdown in communication and trust between central government and RSCs on the one hand and parents and local communities on the other.
In addition to the different structures for academies and maintained schools, there are also different expectations of schools and their leadership teams within the two systems in terms of financial probity, transparency and pupil admissions. This means that even neighbouring schools might be treated differently, and parents can be left confused and unable to access the information they often want and need.
Numerous examples of exorbitant pay for chief executives and senior leaders in MATs have undoubtedly harmed the reputation of the academies programme. While maintained schools are bound by national pay scales for headteachers and other staff, academies are free to set their own pay levels. Academies are supposed to follow a “robust evidence-based process” for determining executive pay, but this has evidently not occurred on a number of occasions despite the DfE complaining to many academies about their pay awards. Most academies exercise a reasonable level of restraint on this matter, but when some individual academies are paying their headteachers over £250,000 a year to run a single school then the pressure from the DfE is clearly not having the desired effect in all cases.
In many respects, it is entirely predictable to see senior academy executives getting paid more on average than headteachers of maintained schools when the former can be directly responsible for a large group of schools while the latter are typically responsible for just one. Furthermore, academies must list the number of staff earning above £60,000 a year (broken down into £10,000 ‘bands’) whereas maintained schools do not have to publish this information. Again, such inconsistencies between the two state school systems make it harder for stakeholders to understand how and where taxpayers’ money is being used.
Another source of controversy has been ‘related party transactions’, as some senior leaders and governors within the academy sector have given contracts and jobs (sometimes worth hundreds of thousands of pounds) to family members, colleagues or even their own personal companies. Such transactions are legal under company and charity law, so long as open and transparent procurement procedures have been followed and any potential conflicts of interest are appropriately managed. Despite numerous rules and regulations being introduced to curb the inappropriate actions of some individuals, problems continue to this day. That said, there is also evidence to suggest that related party transactions may have led to improper behaviour in the maintained schools sector as well, and the ability to track related party transactions in academy trusts is only possible because they are listed in their annual accounts – something that is not demanded of maintained schools.
The admissions system drives another wedge between maintained schools and academies. The ‘Schools Admissions Code’ applies to all state schools, but academies operate as their own ‘admissions authority’ – meaning that they are effectively in charge of their own admissions practices, unlike most maintained schools. Studies have shown that Free Schools admit fewer disadvantaged pupils than similar schools nearby, while some academies appear to be (knowingly or unknowingly) circumventing the Schools Admissions Code. The most recent report from the Office of the Schools Adjudicator, which monitors whether state schools are fulfilling their legal obligations, found that of the 129 new cases brought against schools’ admissions policies last year, almost three-quarters were related to academies and Free Schools. This included academies refusing to adhere to ‘Fair Access Protocols’ that are supposed to ensure the most vulnerable pupils are placed in a suitable school as soon as possible, with the Schools Adjudicator reporting that “the proportion of schools not agreeing protocols remains noticeably greater among academy schools”.
The increasing number of academies poses a more general problem in terms of the growing complexity of the admissions system. The Schools Adjudicator recently noted that “the admission arrangements determined by local authorities …are almost always clear and uncomplicated so it is easy for parents and others to understand how places will be allocated”. However, for schools that are their own admissions authority (including academies) “frequently they are less clear and more, or even very, complicated”. This presents significant challenges for pupils and parents as they try to navigate the admissions system. It is not the case that academies are the only type of school that fails to comply with the Schools Admissions Code, but it does appear that they are the most likely to find themselves on the wrong side of the rules.
The pursuit of creating more academies over many years and successive governments has spawned countless conversations around school structures, yet the standard of education being provided within these structures has too often been ignored. Decisions around the structures for, and expectations of, state schools should always be based on improving the quality of education rather than ideological or political considerations. Consequently, the following recommendations focus on bringing the two separate state school systems together into a single coherent landscape. This will, in turn, provide a set of mechanisms and processes that can be used to monitor and improve standards across the state school sector in a fair and equitable manner. Some of the more significant proposals are best packaged within a new piece of legislation – titled ‘The State School System Act 2020’.
PRINCIPLE 1 – SIMPLICITY
- RECOMMENDATION 1: The Department for Education should no longer refer to ‘academies’ or ‘free schools’ in The State School System Act 2020 or any related documentation. Instead, the standard term for referring to all government-funded schools should simply be ‘state schools’.
- RECOMMENDATION 2: The State School System Act 2020 should be used to establish every state school as a separate legal entity. This is currently the case for maintained schools and stand-alone academies but not academies within multi-academy trusts. Following this, all schools should be required to have a governing body that delivers a set of core functions and responsibilities.
- RECOMMENDATION 3: The State School System Act 2020 should stipulate that state schools will be funded directly by the Department for Education without passing through any intermediary organisation. Schools will then be free to share or pool their resources with other schools. This will be delivered through a standardised funding agreement for all state schools.
PRINCIPLE 2 – COLLABORATION
- RECOMMENDATION 4: Headteachers will be given the autonomy to operate as an ‘independent state school’ or join any of the existing types of collaboration between schools – such as trusts, federations and partnerships – as these will now be available to every state school irrespective of their prior status as a maintained school or academy.
- RECOMMENDATION 5: The State School System Act 2020 will make all stand-alone academies ‘independent state schools’. If they so wish, these schools can choose to set up a new partnership, federation or trust or join an existing group. Multi-academy trusts will also be renamed ‘national school trusts’.
- RECOMMENDATION 6: Within The State School System Act 2020, the default option for existing maintained schools should be that they join a new form of school grouping called a ‘local schools trust’ (based on the current model for multi-academy trusts) that will be created to allow local authorities to run state schools in their area. Alternatively, a maintained school can choose to become an ‘independent state school’, after which they can join a different partnership, federation or national schools trust.
PRINCIPLE 3 – COHERENCE
- RECOMMENDATION 7: The State School System Act 2020 should replace the system of eight ‘Regional Schools Commissioners’ with 35 ‘Local Schools Commissioners’ (LSCs) across the country. The new LSCs will be responsible for managing the performance of all state schools operating in their area, holding the funding agreements with schools, commissioning new school places and deciding on the most suitable operators of schools in their locality.
- RECOMMENDATION 8: Alongside their role in monitoring the performance of each state school, LSCs can formally intervene by changing the operator or management of any underperforming school (e.g. moving an independent state school into a school trust) if improvements are not recorded within a reasonable timeframe.
- RECOMMENDATION 9: Should the need for a new school arise, the LSC will be responsible for identifying the most appropriate operator of the school through a fair, open and rigorous procurement process – with the highest priority being given to existing operators of successful state schools.
- RECOMMENDATION 10: In this new state school system, the core role of local authorities will be to act as a ‘champion’ for all children and young people in their area. Rather than providing education services directly, they should focus on commissioning services from others and supporting education in their area as well as taking control of admissions for state schools.
PRINCIPLE 4 – TRANSPARENCY
- RECOMMENDATION 11: All state schools should publish annual accounts on their website, including income, expenditure and balances. These accounts will also include any financial contribution made by the school to their chosen collaborative arrangement (e.g. a trust) as well as details of contracts currently held by the school worth £10,000 or more. Every state school can also be issued with a ‘Financial Notice to Improve’ should their financial position deteriorate.
- RECOMMENDATION 12: Alongside their annual accounts, all state schools should publish the names and total remuneration for any individual(s) earning over £60,000 including base salaries, bonuses and pension payments.
- RECOMMENDATION 13: Related party transactions in the state school system should be banned, irrespective of the type of school or collaboration that seeks to use them.
- RECOMMENDATION 14: A full separation of duties between employees, trustees and members along with a higher minimum number of members should be formal requirements for all school trusts as part of the implementation of The State School System Act 2020.
- RECOMMENDATION 15: The new LSCs should operate in an open and transparent manner. This includes publishing full details of the decisions they make in relation to school interventions, holding public consultations and meetings on major issues (e.g. setting up a new school) and scrapping the concept of ‘headteacher boards’.
Considerable political oxygen has been (and continues to be) consumed by fraught debates over the impact of ‘academies’ at a local, regional and national level. It has evidently reached the point where the seemingly endless disputes over whether one set of structures is better than another makes it difficult to hold sensible discussions about how to improve school standards. It is regrettable that some people now appear more interested in debating the label attached to a given school rather than the substance of what is happening in the classrooms within those same schools.
As noted in the title of this report (‘Trust issues’), the conversations around how to organise and deliver state education are frequently conducted in an atmosphere of mistrust and suspicion – particularly in relation to academies and the trusts that typically run them. This report takes the view that the best way to move beyond these polarised opinions is for the government to set the explicit goal of bringing all state schools together over the next few years into a single, unified system. In effect, the proposals in this report aim to take the best of what the academies programme has promoted – more autonomy for headteachers, greater innovation and the use of collaboration between schools to drive up standards – and combine this with the foundations of the maintained school system – a commitment to fairness, openness and a local approach to schooling. In doing so, supporters of both maintained schools and academies will hopefully recognise the benefits of building a simpler, more coherent and more transparent school system that enshrines the values and principles that they each cherish. After all, despite their differences, these two groups of supporters want to achieve the same thing: a better education for children and young people in this country.