Sponsored academies not succeeding with disadvantaged pupils who did well at primary school

Disadvantaged pupils who have fallen behind at primary schools make more progress by GCSE in sponsored academies in chains than in other types of school, according to analysis published by the Sutton Trust today. However those high attainers who are in the top 20% at the end of primary school make less progress in these academies.

The research, by Professor Merryn Hutchings and Professor Becky Francis, analysed the performance of disadvantaged students – those entitled to the pupil premium – in academy chains from 2014-2016.

The researchers found that, on average, academy chains do better for their disadvantaged pupils with low prior attainment. They identified 26 chains out of 48, more than half, where disadvantaged pupils with lower grades at the end of primary schools made more progress than in state schools generally. But there were only eight chains where poorer pupils with top grades at primary schools made more progress than the national average.

To support pupils with high attainment in academies, the Sutton Trust is calling for the Government to create a fund to support successful initiatives for high attainers from disadvantaged backgrounds, and to focus on supporting disadvantaged pupils of all attainment levels through the pupil premium.

Chain Effects 2017 includes an index comparing the chains’ 2016 performance for disadvantaged pupils on the most important attainment measures, including Progress 8, Attainment 8 and the percentage achieving A*-C grades in English and Maths. This is the first year that the analysis uses these new headline accountability measures.

The report highlights how outcomes for disadvantaged pupils vary massively across academy chains. Poorer pupils in 10 out of 48 chains performed above the national average on key measures of 2016 attainment for disadvantaged pupils, including four chains – City of London, Diocese of London, Harris and Outwood Grange – which were significantly above the average. However, in 29 of the 48 chains analysed, disadvantaged pupils performed below the national average for all state schools.

Four chains – Outwood Grange, Landau Forte, United Learning and Diocese of London – have had above average attainment and above average improvement in two successive years. Of concern, however, are the ten chains where attainment and improvement were below the national average.

Over the last year, the Government has been more willing to move underperforming academies from their chains and Regional Schools Commissioners have been actively re-brokering academies.

However, to make sure that the academies programme realises its goal of improving outcomes for disadvantaged children, the report is urging the Government, and the National and Regional Schools Commissioners, to do more to create mechanisms that spread good practice from the best academy chains to the rest. Suggestions include creating a taskforce to act as mentors to those sponsors struggling to realise their potential, and commissioning robust research that analyses the factors behind a chain’s success in providing transformational outcomes for disadvantaged pupils.

Sir Peter Lampl, Chairman of the Sutton Trust and of the Education Endowment Foundation, said today:

“As our research shows, more than half of academy chains are doing a great job for their disadvantaged pupils. However the problem is there are only eight chains out of 48 where poorer pupils who are in the top 20% at the end of primary school make more progress than those in state schools.  So many high attaining pupils are failing to fulfil their early academic potential in these schools.

“The Sutton Trust has long been advocating that high attaining students in academies should have the support and guidance they need to thrive.  The Government should create a fund to enable these students to succeed.”

Professor Becky Francis, Director of the UCL-Institute of Education, said today:

“It is heartening to find that a majority of academy chains are effectively supporting their pupils with low prior attainment; something that schools in England have often struggled to achieve. However, they need to extend this to ensure they are supporting the progress of all their disadvantaged pupils. As well as the importance of this for life chances and social mobility, this will be necessary to drive up attainment in sponsored academy chains, which is still problematic for many.

“Indeed, the finding that a fifth of the chains in our sample are performing well below average and not improving is a cause for strong concern. These chains need support to improve. We need urgently to find ways to learn from the successful chains, to ensure that the sponsor academies programme delivers its promise for young people.”


  1. The Sutton Trust is a foundation set up in 1997, dedicated to improving social mobility through education. It has published over 180 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 2017: The impact of academy chains on low income students by Professor Merryn Hutchings (London Metropolitan University) and Professor Becky Francis (UCL-Institute of Education) is available here.
  3. Sponsored academies typically replace poorly performing schools, with the intention of improving educational outcomes for disadvantaged young people. Sponsors are many – from business leaders, to charities, to religious organisations – but all share this same goal. They are, as such, one of the Government’s key vehicles for improving social mobility through schools.
  4. The 48 chains included in this research were all chains with three or more academies of any type, which had consistently included at least two secondary or all-through sponsored academies (the schools analysed) from the start of the 2013/14 school year to the end of the 2015/16 school year. These schools were chosen because it could be reasonably expected that the sponsors have had long enough to affect their progress. The analysis focuses on disadvantaged students – those who have received free school meals at any time over the last six years, a definition used in allocating the pupil premium by the government.
  5. The term ‘mainstream schools’ refers to all state-funded secondary schools and academies, including those included in this analysis, but excluding special schools. It is not the same as ‘maintained schools’.
  6. All academies opened prior to September 2010 are classified as sponsored by the DfE, as well as those that subsequently became academies because they were identified as under-performing.
  7. According to the DfE, “Progress 8 aims to capture the progress a pupil makes from the end of primary school to the end of secondary school. It is a type of value added measure, which means that pupils’ results are compared to the actual achievements of other pupils with the same prior attainment. The performance measures are designed to encourage schools to offer a broad and balanced curriculum with a focus on an academic core at key stage 4, and reward schools for the teaching of all their pupils, measuring performance across 8 qualifications. Every increase in every grade a pupil achieves will attract additional points in the performance tables.
  8. “Attainment 8 measures the achievement of a pupil across 8 qualifications including mathematics (double weighted) and English (double weighted), 3 further qualifications that count in the English Baccalaureate (EBacc) measure and 3 further qualifications that can be GCSE qualifications (including EBacc subjects) or technical awards from the DfE approved list.”
  9. The tables are based on a summary score calculated for each chain. The score is calculated by looking at the performance of disadvantaged pupils in qualifying schools in the chain using three metrics: Progress 8 score, Attainment 8 score, and percentage achieving A*-C in English and mathematics. These three measures were weighted equally and combined to generate an overall score for each chain and compared to the average for all mainstream schools. Both the attainment and improvement tables are created similarly. To take into account the fact that the accountability systems changed during the period under the analysis, and schools were not aiming towards improving their Progress 8 score in 2013/14 for example, the appendix of the full report includes tables generated using a methodology as close as possible to that used by the first three Chain Effects reports, using the main accountability measures before this year’s change.

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