The best academy chains outperform other state-funded schools, new Sutton Trust research shows today, while the weakest chains trail their mainstream counterparts in raising standards for their poorest pupils.

The research, by Professor Merryn Hutchings, Professor Becky Francis and Dr Robert de Vries,  compares the performance of disadvantaged students – those entitled to the pupil premium – in sponsored academies in 31 chains from 2011-2013.

The report, Chain Effects, includes a new index comparing the chains’ 2013 performance for disadvantaged pupils on the most important attainment measures; including the percentage achieving five A*-C grade GCSEs or equivalent (including English and Maths), the percentage making expected progress in English and Maths, performance in the English Baccalaureate, and overall performance on their best 8 GCSEs.

The report shows that in nine of the 31 chains disadvantaged students in sponsored academies outperformed the average for those in mainstream schools in 2013. Of these, the best performers based on the proportion of disadvantaged pupils gaining five good GCSEs or equivalent are:

  • The Harris Federation – which now has 27 academies and free schools mainly in South London
  • The City of London Corporation – with three academies around the capital
  • Barnfield Education Partnership – a Luton-based chain linked to a further education college
  • Mercers’ Company – a  City-based livery company which has three academies, two of which are also linked to the successful Thomas Telford City Technology College in the West Midlands
  • ARK Schools – a chain that now has 27 academies in London, the South East, and Birmingham.

In sponsored academies in each of these chains the proportion of disadvantaged students achieving five good GCSEs is at least 15 percentage points higher than the average for disadvantaged students in mainstream schools. These are the same chains that stand out as the best performers across the suite of measures compiled in the index.

The report also shows that, across the board, disadvantaged students in 18 of the 31 chains are improving faster than the national average.  On the core five good GCSEs measure, five chains improved significantly more than the national average between 2011 and 2013. These were Barnfield, The City of London Corporation, the David Ross Education Trust, the Diocese of Salisbury, and Leigh Academies Trust.

In all of these chains, the improvement in the proportion of disadvantaged students achieving five good grades in 2013 was at least 18 percentage points – 4.5 times the average rate in all mainstream schools.

However, the report also shows that some chains have improved their results through the use of vocational qualifications given multiple GCSE equivalence, something that will be disallowed from the 2014 national performance tables, and this contributed to the improvements in a number of these chains.

Success on one performance measure does not guarantee success on all – some chains score highly on students attaining five good GCSEs, but fall short in other areas like the English Baccalaureate.  For other chains, the reverse is true. And, while some chains are doing well at improving outcomes for their disadvantaged pupils across the board, conversely others are performing poorly against a range of measures.

The report notes that the most successful chains are well established, and have been running academies since at least 2007. The two largest, ARK and Harris, have also grown in a planned way, and have ensured they have had the capacity to do so.

Conor Ryan, Director of Research at the Sutton Trust, said today:

“When academies were first established more than a decade ago, their primary purpose was to lift standards for disadvantaged pupils in areas where schools had been failing. Our report shows that some chains are succeeding well in meeting this goal but others are failing to do so, particularly on those measures against which all schools are increasingly judged.

“Of course, it takes time to turn around failing schools, so we have also highlighted those schools that are showing rapid improvement. However, it is vital that Ofsted routinely inspects academy chains and there is much stronger action taken where chains are consistently underperforming.”

Professor Becky Francis, of King’s College London, said today:

“Some chains are securing excellent results for their disadvantaged pupils across a whole range of measures, showing what can be achieved her by experienced chains with a planned approach to growth. Their work should be recognised and applauded. But others are doing badly on important measures, and risk becoming part of the problem rather than the solution for their disadvantaged pupils. The government needs to increase transparency and scrutiny of academy chains.”


  1. The Sutton Trust is a foundation set up in 1997, dedicated to improving social mobility through education. It has published over 140 research studies and funded and evaluated programmes that have helped hundreds of thousands of young people of all ages, from early years through to access to the professions.
  2. Chain Effects, the impact of academy chains on low income students by Professor Merryn Hutchings (London Metropolitan University), Professor Becky Francis (King’s College, London) and Dr Robert de Vries (Sutton Trust research fellow) is available here from 0001 July 17th 2014.
  3. The 31 chains included in this research were all chains with three or more academies, which had consistently included at least two secondary or all-through academies from 2011-2013. These chains were chosen as those which had been in existence for long enough to have had a substantive impact on the schools which they sponsored. Disadvantaged students are those who have received free school meals over the last six years, a definition used in allocating the pupil premium by the Government
  4. The 2013 index for all 31 chains, along with an index of improvement from 2011-2013, is attached
  5. These tables are based on a summary score calculated for each chain. This score was calculated based on 2011 and 2013 performance of disadvantaged students in sponsored academies in each chain (weighted by the number of disadvantaged students in each school), combining the following attainment measures: i) the % of disadvantaged students achieving 5 A*-C GCSE grades or equivalent, including English and Maths GCSEs; ii) The % of disadvantaged students achieving expected progress between Key Stages 2 and 4 in English and (separately) Maths; iii) The % of disadvantaged students achieving the English Baccalaureate; iv) total capped point score from best 8 GCSEs (not including equivalents). These measures were standardised relative to the average 2011 and 2013 attainment of all mainstream schools. The final summary score was calculated as the weighted sum of these standardised scores, with the % achieving 5 A*-C including English and Maths comprising 50% of the score, overall Best 8 GCSE point score comprising 20%, and % achieving expected progress in English and (separately) Maths, and % achieving Ebacc comprising 10% each.
  6. The analysis was based on academies which had been consistently present in the chain for the 2010/11, 2011/12 and 2012/13 academic years in order to focus on schools where chains have had sufficient time to improve performance.
  7. Italics are used to distinguish chains for which their overall performance was based on an analysis of two schools only. Their overall performance may therefore be strongly influenced by particular circumstances in a single school, rather than representing a long-standing pattern.
  8. The main purpose of the research was to compare the success of academy chains in raising the attainment of disadvantaged pupils in their sponsored academies. However, the report also compared the overall attainment of disadvantaged students in different types of schools, including London schools which have been the subject of much interest recently. Both minority ethnic and white pupils in London have higher attainment than their counterparts outside the capital – research has shown that London’s ethnic mix enables but is not responsible for this higher attainment. These overall figures for disadvantaged students in 2013 in these categories are given here.

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