Academies and Free Schools: Key issues for the 2015 Parliament

Originally introduced under the Labour Government to replace poorly performing secondary schools, academies became a defining feature of schools policy during the 2010 Parliament. The previous Government argued that academies raised attainment and had a positive impact on other schools in their local area, but there remain concerns that the freedoms afforded to academies, and their rapid expansion, have the potential to result in financial problems and lapses in standards.

The rise and rise of academies

Under the previous Government, the number of academies increased from 200 in May 2010 to over 4,500 in March 2015.

Chart: Number of academies

The number of academies grew rapidly under the previous Government. Cumulative number of academies in England, Jan-07 to Mar-15.
Chart showing number of academies in England between January 2007 and March 2015 

Almost 60% of state-funded secondary schools are academies, up from 6% at the start of 2010.

The previous Government also extended the academies programme to primary schools, and 13% were academies or free schools in September 2014.

The growth of academies under the previous Government was driven by inviting all schools to convert to academies if they wished to do so; a legal presumption under the Education Act 2011 that all new schools will be academies; and the compulsion of underperforming schools to convert to academy status.

The creation of free schools also boosted academy numbers, although they still only account for a relatively small proportion (around 6%) of the total. The first 23 free schools opened in September 2011 and their number reached 241 by September 2014.

The burden of freedom

Academies have a number of freedoms not available to maintained schools, including independence from local authorities (see margin).

While the previous Government argued that freedom from bureaucratic control has brought opportunities for innovation, better leadership and higher attainment, others have questioned whether greater autonomy has raised the potential for abuses and lapses in standards.

These concerns have been given weight by findings of financial mismanagement at a small number of academies, and the 'Trojan Horse' allegations of Islamic extremist teaching in Birmingham schools (several of which were academies).

Areas of concern include:

Teaching standards

As academies do not need to follow the National Curriculum, what children are taught is less prescribed. This, together with the freedom to hire unqualified teachers, has raised concerns about the potential for weak standards.

Conflicts of interest

Many academies are sponsored by other organisations or businesses, who are responsible for, among other things, appointing the school's leadership team and governing body.

Critics have suggested the relationship between schools and their sponsors can prompt conflicts of interest, particularly in the appointment of senior personnel and the procurement of services.

Meeting need for places

Free schools are established outside of local authority planning, and meeting local need is not a formal objective of the free schools programme. This has prompted concerns that free schools may not constitute value for money, particularly if they are smaller or established in areas with high existing provision.

The process of establishing new academies may also make it more difficult for local authorities to ensure there are enough school places to meet demand, an issue discussed further in the previous article "A good school place for every child".

Centralisation

As academies operate under a funding agreement made directly with the Department for Education, it has been questioned whether their regulation has not in fact become more centralised.

Equally, because the freedoms available to academies are granted to the trusts that manage them, individual schools that are part of large chains may have less autonomy than they did under local authority control, depending on how much power the trust decides to delegate.

The previous Government responded to criticism of the academies programme by arguing that academies are more intensely scrutinised than local authority schools; that 72% of free schools have been opened in areas of need for places; that the programme has contributed to a narrowing in the attainment gap between advantaged and disadvantaged children; and that the innovative approaches and competitive stimulus academies provide have raised standards across the sector. 

The Government's last annual report on academy performance stated that sponsored academies were improving more quickly than maintained schools, and that converter academies performed better against the Ofsted framework.

A report by the Commons Education Committee, published in January 2015, said that the evidence currently available did not allow it to draw "firm conclusions on whether academies are a positive force for change", and that it was "too early to judge whether academies raise standards overall or for disadvantaged children".

The future

Will the academies programme be extended or curtailed? In the build-up to the General Election, David Cameron announced plans for schools rated by Ofsted as 'requiring improvement' to be compulsorily converted to academy status, a process currently only used for schools judged to be 'inadequate'. This could lead to a further large expansion of the programme.

Labour have indicated that certain academy freedoms, particularly relating to the curriculum and hiring unqualified teachers, could be restricted or reversed, a position shared by the Liberal Democrats.

The Conservatives and Labour have both indicated that regulatory reform for state-funded schools can be expected in the new Parliament.

What are academies and free schools?

Academies are state schools, independent of local authority control and funded directly by central government. They can be contrasted with 'maintained' schools, which are funded by local authorities. Academies are either 'sponsored', which usually means they are previously underperforming maintained schools that have been compelled to become academies; or they are 'converters', which means they are previously outstanding or good maintained schools that have voluntarily become academies.

Free schools are academies in law, and have the same range of freedoms, but rather than being the product of a conversion or takeover of a maintained school, they are 'new' to the state sector (i.e. they are newly established or formerly independent schools), having been established on the basis of proposals from groups of educators, parents, charities or others.

Academies have a number of freedoms not available to maintained schools, but not all used in practice.

Party Lines

  • Conservatives: expand academies and free schools
  • Labour: end the free schools programme
  • Liberal Democrats: repeal the rule that all new state funded schools must be free schools or academies
  • Greens: integrate academies and free schools into the local authority system
  • UKIP: support and fund free schools, if they are open to the whole community

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The Key Issues articles were published in May 2015. However, the Commons Library produces new briefings as topics evolve.

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