Sir Peter Lampl explores the policy implications of our latest research on academies.

Academies were started in 2000 to alter the fortunes of failing schools that disproportionately served students from some of the nation’s poorest communities. By helping these schools with the support of philanthropic, educational and business partners, the intention was to improve the lives of young people from the least privileged backgrounds by ensuring they gained better exam results and improved opportunities for higher education and work.

Since then, the size of the programme has increased dramatically. Five years ago, there were about 200 academies. At the time of writing, there are well over 5,000 covering both the primary and secondary sectors. Of these, about one third are sponsored academies, while two thirds are more successful schools that have converted to gain academy funding and freedoms.

While converter academies can be high-performing schools, which have chosen the academy path for greater autonomy, sponsored academies conform more to the original purpose of the academy project: to improve the fortunes of the UK’s most under-performing schools. Sponsors are many – from business leaders, to charities, to successful state and independent schools, to religious organisations – but all share this same goal.

Given the remit of the sponsoring process, we wanted to find out if sponsors had a positive effect on the schools in their chains. Today we publish Chain Effects 2016, an analysis of the impact sponsored academy chains are having on disadvantaged pupils. More specifically, the report is interested in the performance of secondary academies within chains, especially those that have been under the control of a single sponsor for some time.

In 2014, the Sutton Trust examined this issue for the first time, and we repeated the exercise last year. Our two previous reports found that while some chains had seen significant improvement (as compared to the average for all mainstream schools – maintained and academies), there were also some that had not. Today’s report returns to the same question (and many of the same academy chains) to analyse the current state-of-play, and compare results across years.

While there have been some outstanding performers, too many chain sponsors, despite several years in charge of their schools, continue to struggle to improve the outcomes of their most disadvantaged students. While converter academies, as you might expect, perform significantly better than other mainstream secondary schools, sponsored academies still lag behind. Worryingly we found eight chains which are neither attaining nor improving above the average for all secondary schools (including academies).

Today’s report is particularly important at a time when the government is committed to a rapid expansion of the academies programme, and raises real issues about the capacity of the system to meet such elevated expectations. I was pleased that Nicky Morgan, the education secretary, accepted our recommendation that only successful chains should be allowed to expand. It is vital that far more is done to build the capacity of successful schools – of which Outwood Grange in Yorkshire is a good example– to support weaker schools in local multi-academy trusts.

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