Two-thirds of academy chains perform below average for disadvantaged pupils, according to new analysis by the Sutton Trust published today. The research, authored by Professor Merryn Hutchings and Professor Becky Francis, analysed the performance of disadvantaged students – those entitled to the pupil premium – in 2017, and over the five years of our Chain Effects series.

Poorer pupils in 12 out of 58 chains analysed performed above the national average on key measures of 2017 attainment for disadvantaged pupils, including three chains – City of London, Diocese of London, and Harris – which were significantly above the average. However, in 38 of the 58 chains analysed, disadvantaged pupils performed below the national average for all state schools.

Sponsor-led academies have been promoted by successive governments as a way to improve the educational achievement of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds. As the academies programme has developed, policymakers have increasingly seen multi-academy trusts (MATs) as the best way of working to improve the performance of previously struggling schools and the educational outcomes of their often disadvantaged pupils.

However, the Sutton Trust’s five-year analysis highlights how much inconsistency there is between chains and overall how they perform below the national average for all state schools. It finds there is the same small group of chains that consistently outperform the national average for disadvantaged pupils, while another small group of chains remain at the bottom of the table each year, and there is little to suggest that the Regional Schools Commissioners are having any success in bringing about improvement.

There is little to suggest that the Regional Schools Commissioners are having any success in bringing about improvement. A small number of chains have shown consistent year on year improvement in the ranking, demonstrating that improvement is possible, for example the Grace Foundation, while others have fallen or fluctuated.

The report highlights some chains entering high numbers of pupils to the EBacc qualification, many of whom fail to achieve the required number of pass marks. Unnecessarily entering students for this optional qualification who are unlikely to succeed can be harmful.

The report also demonstrates that it is long-standing academy chains who show better exam results, with newer chains frequently performing poorly, indicating that it takes time for a new trust to establish effective practices in the schools it takes over.

To make sure that the academies programme realises its goal of improving outcomes for all disadvantaged children, the report is urging Regional Schools Commissioners (RSCs) to act more decisively with chains that do not deliver improvement over time. In addition, the government must recognise the challenge of limited capacity in the system and allow RSCs to draw on all successful providers with good track records, including local authorities.

The report is also recommending that 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.

Sir Peter Lampl, founder and chairman of the Sutton Trust, said today:

“Two-thirds of academy chains perform below the national average for all state schools on key measures of attainment for disadvantaged young people.  Improving their educational achievement was the original reason why academies were set up.  In this regard they have not succeeded.

“We at the Sutton Trust are recommending the sharing of good practice of the best academy chains with the rest. More generally schools should make increased use of the body of what works evidence.  Also, there should be strenuous efforts in struggling schools to attract and retain good teachers and those teachers in subjects where there are shortages.”

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

“Our five year analysis of sponsor academies’ provision for disadvantaged pupils shows that while a few chains are demonstrating transformational results for these pupils, more are struggling. We continue to find it perplexing that the Government has done so little to explore the methods of these successful chains and to distil learning to support others. We continue to call for this, and to call for the Government to capitalise on the successes of a range of schooling organisations, whether MATs or Local Authorities, in order to do the best we can for all pupils.”


  • The Sutton Trust is a foundation set up in 1997, dedicated to improving social mobility through education. It has published over 200 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.
  • Chain Effects 2018: 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 online from this link.
  • 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.
  • The 58 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 2014/15 school year to the end of the 2016/17 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.
  • 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’.
  • 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.
  • 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 grades 9-4 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.


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