The authors analysed school performance data to review how well disadvantaged pupils achieve in academy chains. They included chains only if they had at least three academies in 2013, and two sponsored secondary academies for the whole period from September 2010 to July 2013. This means that academies are included in our analysis only when there has been sufficient time for the sponsor chain to have some impact on performance.
They reviewed outcomes for disadvantaged pupils in sponsored secondary school academies across a range of measures, including their results in the best 8 GCSE subjects, progress in English and Maths, and the English Baccalaureate, in addition to the main measure of five good GCSE or equivalents including English and mathematics. This is intended to reflect the stronger focus taken by the coalition on academic subjects, and the change in emphasis in the league tables from 2016.
The characteristics of the various chains have also been reviewed in order to explore whether there are any common characteristics across the chains that are more or less successful in promoting the attainment of disadvantaged pupils.
- There is very significant variation in outcomes for disadvantaged pupils, both between and within chains; and chains differ significantly in attainment against different measures.
- On average, the improvement for disadvantaged pupils in 5A*CEM in sponsored academies in the analysis group was greater than the average for all mainstream schools between 2011 and 2013. However, there was enormous variation between chains, with only 16 out of 31 exceeding the figure for all mainstream schools in 2013.
- Additionally, some sponsor chains are managing to raise attainment significantly for young people with low prior attainment – an important demonstration of value.
- There are five chains that are promoting high attainment for disadvantaged pupils – and indeed for pupils of all types – across a whole range of measures.
- However, there are also some chains which are highly ineffective across a range of measures, and which are failing to improve the prospects of their disadvantaged pupils.
- Most academy chains in our study have relied heavily on equivalent qualifications, and underperform on the EBacc measure, in comparison to the national average. There are, however, some notable exceptions.
- When analysed against a range of Government indicators on attainment, a majority of the chains analysed still underperform the mainstream average on attainment for their disadvantaged pupils. While some of those below the average are continuing to improve, others are not.
- The key factors we have identified in the more successful chains are a measured approach to expansion, and the importance of building up strong experience of strategies for improving schools.
Sutton Trust Recommendations
- Ofsted should be empowered to undertake formal inspections of academy chains, and to make judgements on their provision, based on clear criteria.
- The DfE should publish data on chains’ performance, across a range of measures, in addition to that which they publish for individual academies.
- The DfE should sharpen and make more transparent its procedures for awarding sponsorship, including rigorous benchmarks on convincing strategies and capacity for school improvement.
- New chains should not be allowed to expand until they have a track record of success in bringing about improvement in their first academies
- The DfE should also continue to sharpen and make more transparent its process for issuing warning notices to sponsors, and for capping chains.
- Funding agreements for new sponsors should be for five years rather than seven. And the government should not renew funding agreements where improvement has not been demonstrated.
- The Government should learn and spread the lessons from successful chains. As the evidence on chains grows, the Government should commission robust research on the practices of those chains that are providing transformational improvement for their disadvantaged pupils, so that lessons of success may be spread throughout the system.
For sponsors and schools:
- Sponsor chains – but especially those needing to improve – should seek out successful practice and reflect on what their own chain could learn from it. In particular, they should ensure there are clear lines of responsibility and accountability for school improvement and performance within the chain.
- Academies need to do more to ensure that children from low and middle income homes gain good grades in the subjects that will facilitate access to prestigious universities and careers.
- There is growing evidence on the most effective strategies for school improvement, including the Sutton Trust/Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) Toolkit, which focuses on effective strategies to improve results for disadvantaged students. Sponsors and schools should make full use of this growing body of evidence to improve pupil outcomes.