Converting schools to academies is central to the Department for Education’s approach to improving the quality of education. At January 2018 it had converted 6,996 maintained schools to academies. However, the Department is taking longer than intended to convert a sizeable proportion of the underperforming schools it believes will benefit most from academy status, says today’s report by the National Audit Office (NAO).
Converting maintained schools to academies has cost the Department an estimated £745 million since 2010-11, of which £81 million was spent in 2016-17.
A much higher proportion of secondary schools than primary schools are academies – 72% of secondary schools, including free schools, are academies compared with 27% of primary schools. This leaves local authorities with responsibility for most primary schools and specialist providers, but few secondary schools. In areas where a high proportion of secondary schools are academies, it is more difficult for local authorities to take an integrated, whole-system approach to the education of children in their area.
Most local authority areas are likely to contain both academies and maintained schools for the foreseeable future. The NAO report found, however, that the proportion of schools that are now academies varies widely across England, from 93% in Bromley to 6% in Lancashire, Lewisham and North Tyneside. There are 23 local authorities (15%) that have 150 or more maintained schools, while 55 local authorities (37%) had fewer than 50 maintained schools.
The Department directs maintained schools that Ofsted has rated as inadequate to convert to academies, with the support of a sponsor, aiming to open them within nine months. However, almost two-thirds of these schools take longer than this to open as academies. The NAO estimated that, at January 2018, there were 37,000 children in maintained schools that Ofsted had rated as inadequate more than nine months before but that had not yet opened as academies.
The Department has found it difficult to find sponsors for some of the most challenged schools. In particular, small, sometimes remote, primary schools can find it challenging to attract local sponsors and integrate into multi-academy trusts. There are 242 sponsored academies that are more than 50 miles from their sponsor.
Furthermore, there is considerable regional variation in the number of available sponsors located close to underperforming schools and a shortage of sponsors and multi-academy trusts able to support new academies. From 2012-13, the Department began offering grants aimed at boosting sponsors’ ability to take on more academies. The National Audit Office did not see evidence that the Department has assessed whether this funding is helping.
The Department has recently improved its process for converting schools to academies. This has involved closer scrutiny of the financial position of maintained schools applying to become academies and prospective sponsors. It has also increased the standards of governance it expects from academy trusts.
Nonetheless, the NAO has found further scope for the Department to make the process more effective, particularly when it comes to identifying financial risks and strengthening assurance that trustees and senior leaders are appropriate people to be responsible for public money.
“It is unclear how feasible it will be for the Department to continue converting large numbers of schools to academies. There is extensive variation across the country, leaving many local authorities with responsibility largely for primary schools. To cut through this complexity, the Department needs to set out its vision and clarify how it sees academies, maintained schools and local authorities working together to create a coherent and effective school system for children across all parts of the country.”
Amyas Morse, head of the National Audit Office
Notes for Editors
maintained schools had converted to academies at January 2018.
number of approved sponsors at January 2018.
amount that the Department for Education spent in 2016-17 on converting schools to academies
proportion of state-funded schools that were academies, including free schools, at January 2018
estimated proportion of pupils that were being taught in academies, including free schools, as at January 2018
proportion of secondary schools that were academies, including free schools, at January 2018, compared with 27% of primary schools
6% to 93%
range in the proportion of schools that were academies, including free schools, in different local authority areas, at January 2018
of applications to convert to academies without a sponsor between September 2014 and August 2017 were rejected (13 of 2,173 applications)
grant that the Department for Education pays to schools converting to academies without a sponsor
proportion of maintained schools rated as inadequate by Ofsted between April 2016 and March 2017 that had not opened as academies nine months later (105 of 166 schools)
amount that the Department for Education spent in 2016-17 on building capacity in the academies sector
Academies are publicly funded independent state schools. At January 2018, 7,472 of the 21,538 state-funded schools in England (35% of all state-funded schools) were academies. Of these, 6,996 had converted from maintained schools and 476 were set up as free schools. There were 14,066 state-funded schools that continued to be supported and overseen (maintained) by local authorities. Each academy school must be part of an academy trust, a charitable company which manages the school's budget and employs the staff. Academy trusts are directly funded by, and accountable to, the Department for Education, via the Education and Skills Funding Agency.
A sponsor is an organisation that the Department has approved to support an academy or group of academies. Most sponsors are multi-academy trusts. Individual philanthropists, private companies, charities or other educational institutions may also set up academy trusts and sponsor academy schools.
The Department does not routinely collect data on the amounts spent on conversion by other bodies, including schools, sponsors and local authorities.
Early in the academies programme, many schools set up as individual academies, known as single-academy trusts. Since August 2012, however, an increasing proportion of academies have formed or joined groups of schools, known as multi-academy trusts.
Press notices and reports are available from the date of publication on the NAO website. Hard copies can be obtained by using the relevant links on our website.
The National Audit Office scrutinises public spending for Parliament and is independent of government. The Comptroller and Auditor General (C&AG), Sir Amyas Morse KCB, is an Officer of the House of Commons and leads the NAO. The C&AG certifies the accounts of all government departments and many other public sector bodies. He has statutory authority to examine and report to Parliament on whether departments and the bodies they fund, nationally and locally, have used their resources efficiently, effectively, and with economy. The C&AG does this through a range of outputs including value for money reports on matters of public interest; investigations to establish the underlying facts in circumstances where concerns have been raised by others or observed through our wider work; landscape reviews to aid transparency and good practice guides. Our work ensures that those responsible for the use of public money are held to account and helps government to improve public services, leading to audited savings of £734 million in 2016.