The best academy chains are having a transformational impact on pupils’ life chances, but three quarters of the chains analysed for a new Sutton Trust report published today have schools that could be seen as ‘coasting’ under tough new government guidelines.

The research, by Professor Merryn Hutchings, Professor Becky Francis and Dr Philip Kirby,  compared the performance of disadvantaged students – those entitled to the pupil premium – in sponsored academies in 34 chains from 2012-2014.

The report, Chain Effects 2015, includes an index comparing the chains’ 2014 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 11 of the 34 chains disadvantaged students in sponsored academies outperformed the average for those in mainstream schools – all state-funded secondary schools including academies – in 2014.

The highest performers were ARK schools, a chain which now has 32 primary and secondary academies in London, Birmingham and the South of England; the City of London, with three academies; and the Harris Federation, with 36 academies mainly in South London.  These academies were also top performers in last year’s index.

Across the sponsored academies in each of these best 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.

Other smaller successful chains based on this overall measure include Outwood Grange in Yorkshire, academies sponsored by the Mercers Company in the West Midlands and those that were until last year part of the Luton-based Barnfield Federation.

However, the report found that 44% of the academies analysed were below the government’s new ‘coasting’ level in 2014 and 26 of 34 chains had at least one coasting school. The Sutton Trust is urging the Government to include a measure of attainment for disadvantaged pupils in its new criteria for coasting schools. The Government has recently stated that, in an effort to improve their results, coasting schools will be converted to academies in the future.

The report also shows that disadvantaged students in 17 of the 34 chains improved faster than the national average from 2012 to 2014 when all performance measures were considered.  On the core five good GCSEs measure, six chains improved significantly more than the national average between 2012 and 2014. Additional strong performers on this measure included the Cabot Learning Federation in South West England, Co-operative Academies Trust, the David Ross Education Trust and the Lincoln-based Priory Federation of Academies Trust.

However, the report found that four chains performed significantly below average against all five attainment measures for their disadvantaged pupils – Midland Academies Trust, Diocese of Salisbury, the Learning Schools Trust and School Partnership Trust Academies. A total of 14 academy trusts and chains out of 34 performed significantly below the average attainment across measures for all mainstream schools and academies, and three chains did so in terms of improvement for their disadvantaged pupils.

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, which is becoming increasingly important in school performance tables.  For other chains, the reverse is true. Some chains that are showing good levels of improvement have lower than average levels of attainment.

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

“Our report suggests that, while there have been some outstanding performers, many chain sponsors, despite several years in charge of their schools, continue to struggle to improve the outcomes of their most disadvantaged students. The distance left to travel has been thrown into stark relief as the government now sets its sights on improving ‘coasting schools’: schools that have failed to improve significantly across three years. The best academies benefit from good leadership and good teaching, which provide an outstanding example to others that continue to face challenges.”

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

“There is very significant variation in outcomes for disadvantaged pupils, both between and within chains. Some chains continue to achieve impressive outcomes for their disadvantaged students against a range of measures, demonstrating the transformational impact on life chances that can be made. However, a larger group of low-performing chains are achieving results that are not improving and may be harming the prospects of their disadvantaged students.”

The report urges the Government to expand its pool of school improvement providers beyond academy sponsors to include new school-level trusts and federation, while introducing greater rigour and transparency for all sponsors. It says that new chains should not be allowed to expand until they have a track record of success in bringing about improvement in their existing academies.


  1. The Sutton Trust is a foundation set up in 1997, dedicated to improving social mobility through education. It has published over 150 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 2015: 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 Philip Kirby (Sutton Trust research fellow) is available here from 0001 July 24th
  3. Sponsored academies typically replace poorly performing schools, with the intention of improving their results. 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 34 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 the start of the 2011/12 school year, to the end of the 2013/14. These chains were chosen as they had been in existence for long enough to have had a substantive impact on the schools which they sponsored. The analysis focuses on disadvantaged students – those who have received free school meals over the last six years, a definition used in allocating the pupil premium by the government.
  5. The index is based on attainment in 2014 for all 34 chains, along with an index of improvement from 2012-2014, is attached. It is ranked alphabetically within each level.
  6. The term ‘mainstream schools’ refers to all state-funded secondary schools and academies, including those included in this analysis. It is not the same as ‘maintained schools’.
  7. These tables are based on a summary score calculated for each chain. This score was calculated based on 2012 and 2014 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 2012 and 2014 attainment of all mainstream schools. The final summary score was calculated by weighting 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. The improvement table is unaffected by the DfE’s recent changes to the calculation of performance measures, because it is concerned with the comparison to the mainstream average, rather than just the percentage point difference across years.
  8. Throughout the report, 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.
  9. 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, mainstream schools, and converter and solo academies open across the same period as the sponsor chains analysed. Both minority ethnic and white pupils in London have higher attainment than their counterparts outside the capital.

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