The Rise of the Academy Chain

The Government’s recently announced commitment to ensure that by 2020 every primary and secondary school in England will be, or be in the process of becoming, an academy’ has generated discussion, concern and questions.

The academy programme was initially introduced by the Labour government in 2000 and aimed specifically to turn around schools that were in urgent need of improvement.  The programme rapidly expanded under the Coalition Government from 2010, and as it stands, 14% of primary and 61% of secondary schools have academy status.  In the absence of the usual support of a local authority, school-to-school support mechanisms are fundamental in establishing support networks for academies.  To this end, academies often form chains where two or more academies have a shared sponsor; academy chains are increasingly on the rise.  An academy sponsor is significant in several ways; a sponsor creates the academy, appoints the governing body, owns the estate, and will often determine the underpinning vision and values by which the schools are run.

As a Master’s student at the University of Birmingham, about to embark on a study exploring the values of academy sponsors, the area of critical importance for me, given the scale of this latest announcement, is the ethos of groups of schools that operate under one main sponsor.  What is the vision or ethos of the sponsor and how are its core values manifested in the day-to-day running of the individual academies within its chain? With all schools set to become academies, the number of academy chains in England, as well as the average size of a chain, is inevitably going to increase. A recommendation of the Department for Education (DfE), included in the budget announcement, is that ‘the vast majority of schools work in multi-academy trusts (MATs), allowing them to share resources, staff and expertise to continue driving up standards’.  The implications of expanding an academy chain reflect similar implications of expanding a business – preserving the sense of moral purpose driving the business becomes more challenging with the expansion of its leadership, its output and its profit. The degree to which the vision and ethos of a sponsor of an academy chain is palpable in the daily activities of an individual academy, its staff and its stakeholders is underexplored.

The Jubilee Centre’s research emphasises the role of a school’s ethos in cultivating character and values in its pupils. As set out in the Framework for Character Education in Schools, ‘character education permeates all subjects, wider school activities and general school ethos’. The importance of developing character and values in young people has been recognised in education policy with Secretary of State for Education, Nicky Morgan MP, calling for character-building activities to be integrated throughout the school curriculum as set out during the School of Education’s annual Priestley Lecture in 2014.  Initiatives that form part of a £5million pledge by the DfE to support various character development programmes, include drafting in rugby coaches to teach the sport’s core values to school pupils across the UK; such programmes emphasise the recognition of the integral role values play in education. Embedding core values into schools and manifesting these values in pupils’ daily experiences are vital to character development.

The clarity around a sponsor’s vision for its numerous academies, and the extent to which the individual academies embody this vision, will become ever more vital as this latest expansion of the academies programme materialises; yet this aspect appears to have been overlooked thus far.  With concern over the performance of academy chains, and no clear system for regulating underperforming chains, the move to convert all schools to academy status warrants unease and neglects what should be the focus of any overhaul of the education system – the pupils.

Danielle Wartnaby, Research Officer, Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues

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