News, Opinion

What Is An Academy? (And other questions about converting schools)

The government has announced it wants all schools to become academies by 2022. But what are they? Editor Laura McInerney looks at questions about the policy, and tries to answer them straightforwardly.


1.  Aren’t academies run by private companies? Is this just privatisation of schools?

Not quite. We have to be careful with language here.

Academies are schools run by charitable trusts via a contract with the government. We call these charities ‘academy trusts’. The trusts are private, in that the state does not own them, but they cannot run schools for profit. And if the trust does a bad job of running the school it will have to give it back (the buildings, the land, everything).

So this is not a school sell-off. It’s more like lending schools to charities to run on our behalf for as long as the charity is capable of doing so.

READ MORE: Should maintained schools convert to academies?


2.  Can academy trusts sell off school land and stick the cash in their coffers?

No. Academy trusts are given school buildings, and the land they sit on, purely so they can operate the school. As with any school, they can apply to make adaptations, or to give the site over to something else. For example, an academy in Oxfordshire with a large site allowed another school to be built on part of its land. But it can only do this sort of thing in liaison with central government. (And if it is thought it’s not complying its school leaders can end up in front of a parliamentary committee).


3.  So how come the CEOs of academy trusts are being paid such high amounts?

This is a good point. We revealed just last week that the highest paid CEO received £400,000, and some others received increases of between £20-30,000.

There are no nationally-agreed maximum levels for CEO pay. As in the charitable sector, where leaders of major charities can earn substantial six figure sums, so can people who oversee academy trusts which may have upwards of 30 schools.

Is this value for money? Possibly. We want good people to manage schools, and it is true that current CEOs would get paid substantially more to work in private businesses, such as retail chains. But there is a sensible debate to be had about whether caps ought to be brought in.


4.  If academies are ‘free’ from the national curriculum, does that mean the curriculum no longer exists?

In essence: yes. Academies are not “bound” by the national curriculum. But that doesn’t mean they won’t follow it. Ofsted, the schools inspectorate, requires all schools to follow a “broad and balanced” curriculum. Just because a school is an academy doesn’t mean they can teach English, maths and knitting, and all will be well. GCSE exams will also still be based on the national curriculum, so key stage 4 teachers will largely still focus on the same content.

This doesn’t mean all is well. At primary, tests are only in a few narrow subjects, and some subjects may get lopped off the end – for example, there is no real incentive for teaching art and drama in this system. But we need not get het up about the idea that suddenly everyone will teach wildly different things.


5.  What will happen to local authorities?

It’s important to remember that local authorities haven’t “run” schools for a long time. Their role has been one of oversight and statutory responsibilities, such as organizing transport and special needs. Over the past six years, local authorities have had less and less money available for supporting schools and in several places, all schools have already converted to being academies.

Special needs is likely to stay with local authorities, and it seems as if they may get souped-up powers in other places. For example, they don’t currently have power over admissions of academies, but there are plans afoot to give them a role in this again.

Hence, while authorities will lose some aspects of what they do, especially school improvement, they will gain others.

READ MORE: What happens to our existing governing board if we join a MAT?


6.  Does becoming an academy improve standards in a school?

The answer every serious academic will give you is:  we just don’t know. Evidence so far has been inconclusive, but the data we do have largely suggests it doesn’t really make a difference. Some academies do well, others do badly. As with local councils, some academy trusts are very good at running their schools, others are quite poor.

Basically, academies are not magical.


7.  So why would changing to a fully academised system be any better for pupils?

That’s a good question. And one we can’t answer using data. What Nicky Morgan has long said is that she believes a system in which “school leaders” make their own decisions, without oversight from the local council, is better because those leaders are closer to the pupils and know how to make the best decisions for them. (Although the freedom from oversight is an illusion – see the point below).


8.  Who is in charge of checking these charitable trusts aren’t cooking the books and doing badly by their pupils?

A raft of education people check on academies, as well as the Charities Commission.

Eight regional schools commissioners – who are senior civil servants – can check on academies at any time. They decide if trusts should be allowed to take-over new schools, or shed ones no longer working. Commissioners can also give out warning notices, and can close an academy trust if it is performing badly. (This hasn’t happened so far).

The Education Funding Agency – run by more civil servants – checks the accounts of academies each year, and keeps an eye on businesses owned by the people running the charities to see if they are buying services from themselves. Oddly, directors of charities are allowed to purchase from their own for-profit companies. This has been the source of much contention about the academies programme and it is quite odd.

Ofsted, the schools inspectorate, visits academies and writes reports about them the same as it does about other schools. If it notices patterns in one academy trust, it will run a ‘focused inspection’, where it writes to the academy trust about these patterns and says what it needs to do to improve.

As charities, all academy trusts also depend on the Charities Commission granting their charitable status. Should the trust behave in an uncharitable way, the commission could theoretically strip them of their status, which would mean losing the schools they operate. (Though, in practice, one academy trust referred to the commission so far has been waiting over a year for its investigation to complete).

Academies are therefore theoretically well-scrutinised. A problem is whether or not these organisations can cope with the workload and have adequate powers to enforce their will. So far, the evidence is that they are not always able to do so – and the lack of transparency around many of the decisions made by commissioners has made people particularly suspicious.


9.  Will uniforms be more expensive?

When schools change into being academies their uniforms sometimes change. A past investigation of ours showed that schools typically bear the brunt of these costs. However, there is some evidence that academies have more expensive uniforms on average. This is one to watch.


10. What does it mean for pupils?

Honestly? Almost nothing. Academies are just schools, with a slightly different management structure. Almost everything about their day-to-day could be done in a school OR an academy.



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  1. Naive Beyond Belief

    Thanks for writing this, I’ll be sharing widely. The school uniform point was something I hadn’t thought about and there is no mention of governing bodies and local accountability. Will governing bodies stay in place? Will they have representation of any kind in the running of the school?

    • Naive,

      It has taken me a while to understand the structures of Academies, and there is plenty of evidence that I am not alone in this.

      The key point is that all the powers that a Community School Governing Body has, together with a few extra(eg Academies are their own admission authorities) are, by law, vested in the Trust Board. In the case of a Multi Academy Trust (MAT) which is now the favoured Government model, this means that all the GB powers are vested in the Trust Board, who are legally accountable in a formal sense for the exercise of them.

      They may CHOOSE to have a sub committee for each school they control, (they are subcommittees of the Trust Board). If such sub committees exist it is for the Trust Board to further decide what decision making to delegate to them, but actually any decisions still require the ratification of the Trust Board. The Trust Board can review the role of its LGBs at any time and one recently decided to simply abolish them altogether.

      The National Governors Association have criticised the fact that such local sub committees are often called “Local Governing Bodies” and the members called “Governors” as their role is so different from anything we understand as being the role of a Governor.

      In general such a LGB does not appoint the Head, or decide the budget. It does not even elect the LGB chair, who is appointed by the Trust Board, and is formally accountable to the Trust Board which appoints them and not to the LGB they chair. A majority of the LGB where it exists must be appointed by the Trust Board, and again, if it exists there was a requirement that there be two (but not more than two) elected “parent Governors” on it. (It seems that even that requirement for representation is now being swept away by yesterday’s announcement.) There is no requirement for parental representation on the Trust Board.

  2. There is absolutely no evidence to suggest Academies out perform state run school. In fact Ofsted analysis showed that many academies were performing worse than other local authority schools, while a Sutton Trust report in 2014 warned that they were worse for disadvantaged pupils. This is another assault on education a political agenda to privatize education and weaken teachers pay conditions. What a dreadful inditement for future generations….more of the same tory driven scandals!

  3. Tarquin De Launcey

    What Laura fails to point out is that under an academy trust, unlike the current arrangement within a local authority, individual schools have far less freedom over staffing, the curriculum, assessment arrangements, uniform, in fact just about everything. Whereas currently I, and the governors of my school, have total control over these areas, once placed within an academy trust these decisions would be dictated to us.

    • Janet Downs

      Multi-academy trusts can exert more control over their academies than LAs ever did even before Local Management of Schools. MATs are ‘brands’ and their academies are expected to conform.

    • Yes and no. Academies do not have to work within the School Teachers’ Pay and Conditions Document. However, a teacher working in a school at the time of conversion will benefit from pay and conditions protection under the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) (or TUPE) legislation.

      Many school leaders are now considering the wider questions related to legal, HR and Personnel cases that would traditionally be handled by the LA.

  4. Great article, as ever. There is, though, no mention of the fact that academies are also companies with all the accounting and audit responsibilities that go with that – and the possibility of significant personal liabilities for the directors of the company. In my experience, many governors of academies do not fully understand what they have taken on. When things than go wrong, it’s too late to say “We didn’t realise….”

  5. Jean Ward

    What’s wrong with teaching knitting??!!
    Seriously…A good article but surely the success of this scheme depends too much on the quality of Education Committees

      • Nick – you do know that your use of the exclamation mark would not be considered creditworthy in Key Stage 2 Sats. The assessment rubric is quite clear – the only time an exclamation mark should be used is after ‘How’ (as in ‘How ridiculous!’) or ‘What’ (as in ‘What nonsense!’).
        You’re in good company, though. Shakespeare would also have failed.

  6. Academies are technically ‘independent’ schools. They can, therefore, outsource their running to a for-profit education provider. Some academy trusts are already charitable arms of such companies: : The Learning Schools Trust operates academies on behalf of for-profit Kunskapsskolan, The Collaborative Academies Trust is sponsored by EdisonLearning and GEMS Learning Trust is the non-profit arm of GEMS Education Solutions.
    When the group behind the trust decides the business isn’t bring a return, it can wind up. That’s what happened with Prospects Academies Trust in 2014 leaving six academies in limbo.
    When Michael Gove spoke to Policy Exchange before the 2010 Election he said he would let groups like Serco run schools. For link to YouTube clip see here:

  7. Janet Downs

    Academies are not free from the National Curriculum. The DfE response to the petition calling for Sats to be scrapped said:
    ‘the best way to prepare pupils remains to focus on teaching the new national curriculum.’
    As academies as well as non-academies prepare children for Sats, the implication couldn’t be clearer.