Professor Becky Francis gives us her view on academies and the new “coasting schools” definition, in light of the report she co-authored for the Sutton Trust.

Since its inception in 2000, the size of the academies programme has increased dramatically. Five years ago there were about 200 academies, today there are well over 4,000. With Nicky Morgan’s post-election pledge to turn many “coasting” schools into academies, the new government shows no sign of slowing down their expansion.

However, there has been little independent attention to the impact of sponsor academies in realising their intended purpose of transforming the educational outcomes of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Our latest report with the Sutton Trust, Chain Effects 2015, which written by (lead author) Merryn Hutchings, Philip Kirby and me, looks at how well academies are doing in providing for their disadvantaged pupils.

The report 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, students’ performance in the English Baccalaureate, and students’ overall performance on their best 8 GCSEs. This index updates the version we published in our earlier report, Chain Effects.

The good news is that 11 of the 34 academy chains we analysed outperformed the average for those in mainstream schools – all state-funded secondary schools including academies – in 2014. 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.

However, the impact of other academies is patchy at best. The difference between the best and worst performing chains seems to be increasing too with some of those chains identified as having low results and no improvement in our 2014 report falling back further in the intervening period.

One way to explain the pattern is to say, rather than a typical pattern of reversion to the mean, academy chains seem to be showing increasing polarisation between the most effective academy chains (which continue to improve for disadvantaged students) and the least effective chains (which have got worse).

If the academies programme is to expand further, we need to make sure there is much greater consistency across chains through increased rigour and better transparency across the system.

Today’s analysis shows the imperative to learn from effective practice and to act firmly with those chains that urgently need to improve their results. It also provides further evidence that sponsorship is not a panacea for improvement: the Government must take a more open-minded approach to school improvement, to ensure that struggling schools and academies are best supported to improve the life chances of the young people they serve.