Speech given by Christine Gilbert, Chair of the Academies Commission.

We’re seeing a radical change in English education. Nearly half of all secondary schools and a growing number of primary and special schools have become academies. Free schools, UTCs and studio schools are emerging too. This is a new educational landscape and it has developed with astonishing rapidity.

The rapid expansion is a result of the government’s decision to encourage many schools to convert easily to academy status, and its decision to expand the sponsored academy programme into primary schools.

As of 1 April, there were 1776 academies, a huge increase from the 270 or so that had been open or planned at the time of the last election.

The scale and speed of change are unprecedented and there couldn’t be a more important time to explore the implications and likely impact of this expansion. This is why RSA and Pearson have established the Commission and why I was delighted to be invited to chair it. We want to consider the impact of the academies programme to date, but we also want to look forward to anticipate what happens when the majority of schools may be academies.

So the Commission’s work will review the landscape, but with a view to looking at the future rather than revisiting the past. We do not intend to rehearse debates about the decision to develop the academies programme. We are far more interested in ensuring that it delivers on its promise of a better education for every child.

I am joined by two other commissioners, Professor Chris Husbands, Director of the Institute of Education, and Brett Wigdortz, the Chief Executive of Teach First. I am delighted Chris is able to be here today. We are supported in our work by a small but expert team. Professor Becky Francis, Director of the Pearson Centre for Policy and Learning, is heading up the Commission Secretariat. Adam Lent, Director of Programmes at the RSA, is also carving out time to give active support to the work of the Commission. I am grateful to them all.

This is the first in a series of speed commissions that the RSA is planning to run. The intention is to look at key public policy issues over a fairly quick period of time by focusing on just the most overarching questions. So today’s launch of the Commission’s call for evidence focuses on two principal questions:

  • What are the implications of complete academisation for school improvement and pupil achievement?
  • How can improvement and achievement best be secured within an academised system?

Issues of accountability run through both questions. From these two questions, the commissioners have pulled out five more to put flesh on the bones. I want to spend about 20 minutes elaborating on those and then invite questions, but most particularly comments, on the issues they raise. We are also keen to know if there are some key issues you would have expected us to have identified but are currently missing.

Let me now take a little time to explain the key lines of enquiry we’ve identified through our five questions.

Key questions

1. What are the levers and barriers to school improvement within a totally academised system? How can achievement be secured for all pupils within such a system?

We want to look at different approaches to school improvement and their fit within an increasingly autonomous system.  Inevitably, that will lead us to think about competition and collaboration between schools. We’ll look at the different practices of federations and chains over the last few years; the differences between sponsored and converter academies; new and emerging models of profession-led improvement, such as Challenge Partners where outstanding schools are challenging themselves to do better while at the same time working with schools that need more intensive support.

We will be considering the role of Ofsted and inspection. I have always believed inspection should be a support for improvement and the evidence that Ofsted collects suggests 9 out of 10 schools regularly see it that way. But outstanding schools-including many converter academies-are no longer subject to routine inspection.  What does that mean for public accountability and the information provided to parents about each school’s current effectiveness?

We’ll look at the role of local authorities and new models of collaboration that may emerge. Recently, I’ve been fortunate to visit several of the newly designated teaching schools in different parts of the country.  Collaboration for improvement is at the core of their work. Is this the sort of model that will displace the traditional local authority role in school improvement? Or will there be more chains led by individual academies or federating groups of them, or bigger chains? It is clear to me that many local authorities are struggling to adapt to this new educational landscape and budget reductions have led to reductions in school improvement services. Most local authorities that are thinking hard about their role see themselves as championing the needs and interests of children and as a commissioner of services for them rather than providing services themselves. What does this mean for school improvement at system level?

If we are looking at improvement, we will have to do some work on the link between the academies programme and both attainment and rates of progress. It is notoriously difficult to make comparisons but we will examine the evidence about achievement. So, for example, we’ll look at sponsored academies which have been highly successful to see if we can unpick the reasons for that success.  Robert Hill’s recent study for the National College points to a number of factors but we might, for instance, want to compare  the pattern of success in the most successful chains with an area like Tower Hamlets, which last summer achieved well above the national average in 5 A-C GCSE passes (including English and Maths) with no academies at all.

2. Research suggests that academies are not yet using their full freedoms. Why is this? And what are the likely implications when academies start to use these to their full extent?

The recent survey of 478 academies by Reform and the Schools Network drew responses from around a third of all academies then open about why they became academies, the extent to which they were using academy freedoms to innovate to improve performance, and whether giving schools more autonomy was sufficient to drive improvement?

While a majority of academies converted for financial reasons or to achieve greater autonomy, many seem not to be using the freedoms that come with their new status. That so many are not using many of their freedoms is particularly interesting as part of the original rationale for academies was that greater freedom allowed innovation which would lead to better outcomes for children and young people. We are keen to look at particular examples where use of freedoms has accelerated school improvement and led to better pupil outcomes to see if these have lessons at system level.  We are also interested in considering whether practice in some chains has meant less autonomy at individual school level. It may be too that differences have begun to emerge between sponsored and converter academies and we might begin to see the impact of this over the next few months.

3. What are the implications of an academised system on admissions?

Admissions have to be a key focus as we look to the future. We took evidence a week ago from Professor Anne West.  Her research has focused on education policy-in particular market-oriented reforms, school admissions and equity-and on the financing of school-based education. We want to explore whether adherence to the admissions code is as clear in practice as it is in theory and we shall spend time exploring this issue to ensure the interests of all children are protected.  Some academies have used admissions to achieve a more comprehensive intake-and we shall look at the role of banding and lotteries in doing this, and who benefits from such changes. We are keen to look in particular at the experience of children in care,looked after children, and different pupil groups, for example, children and young people with special educational needs. Professor West’s evidence has reinforced the need for the Commission to consider the issue of transparency.

4. What is the impact of diversification and mass academisation on existing academies and schools?

Even if half of secondary schools are academies, fewer than 5% of primaries have gone down that route. What are the implications for those that remain as maintained schools?

Equally, we need to look at how the local market is being managed and the related issues around the choice agenda, including the development of new academies and free schools. This is likely to lead to an exploration of issues relating to social justice.

Who should be responsible for ensuring there is good local provision for every child or young person will be part of our deliberations. This will obviously touch on discussions about the role of the Secretary of State and any new mediating or middle tier. I’m increasingly persuaded, by what I see up and down the country, that we’ve reached a tipping point in favour of schools, school leaders, and teachers themselves, as the primary drivers of systemic improvement.   I’m keen to explore a range of models about how that potential might ensure support for every school in the country without the introduction of a new layer of bureaucracy.

5. What are the key issues concerning governance, accountability and due diligence within an academised system?

Finally, we will consider issues relating to governance, accountability and due diligence.

We are keen to engage governors in the debate. The governing body has a leadership role enshrined in legislation for over 30 years to give strategic direction, to act as a critical friend and to ensure accountability.  How does this work in practice in academies? Models are emerging which show different approaches to governance. These can be seen in developments in various alliances, federations and chains and some are said to be generating stronger internal and external accountability. Robert Hill’s research back in 2010 reported smaller and more focused governing bodies in some of the chains, which, he suggests, are providing a ‘sharper and more driven form of accountability’. Part of the improvement he describes stems from a clearer distinction between strategic direction-exercised at chain level- and more operational accountability-exercised at school level. It will be interesting to explore how governors and, indeed, parents feel about this.  We will also explore how the different models of governance interact with issues of resource accountability.

We want to look more broadly at the role of the sponsor and the differences in the way they are interpreting their accountabilities.  We shall explore how sponsors are selected.  What happens if a relationship breaks down? What happens when a sponsored chain fails to ensure improvement?  We shall consider whether certain types of sponsor have been more successful than others in ensuring improvement and why.  And whether their absence from most convertor academies raises issues.

These are the questions we wish to pose.  We want to see and hear evidence, particularly from the chalk face, to seek answers to our questions so please do respond to today’s call. We are not naïve and know that the sorts of issues we’re considering are likely to be controversial, not least to some of you sitting in this room today.  Nevertheless, we hope that in answering those questions, we can identify ways to ensure that the academies programme is successful in delivering improvements that benefit every child and young person and in raising educational standards for all.


Our press release is available here.

Responses to the report:

Anti Academies Alliance

Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS)

Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL)

Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL)


Education for Liberation


National Union of Teachers (NUT)

SSAT (The Schools Network)

Stephen Twigg MP, Labour’s Shadow Education Secretary

Media Coverage:

Financial Times, 09/01/2013
Success of new academies as yet unproved

Accord Coalition, 10/01/2013
Debate over segregation in schools should not overlook growing religious segregation, cautions Accord

BBC Breakfast, 10/01/2013

BBC News, 10/01/2013
Academies could ‘fuel social segregation’

BBC News, 10/01/2013
Some academies in England ‘covertly’ selecting pupils (video)

BBC Radio 4, Today Programme, 10/01/2013
Christine Gilbert, Commission Chair, and Bill Watkin, operational director for academies at SSAT, discuss potential improvements to the academies system.

Centre for Studies on Inclusive Education, 10/01/2013
Unleashing Inequality

Channel 4 News, 10/01/2013
Academies ‘covertly select’ privileged pupils

Conservative Home, 10/01/2013
Academy schools are breaking down social segregation not fueling it

Disability News Service, 10/01/2013
Report suggests spread of academies is undermining inclusion

Education Investor, 10/01/2013
Government should improve academy accountability

King’s College London, 10/01/2013
Academies report published

Modern Governor, 10/01/2013
Governors’ Role in Academies Needs “Greater Attention”

Public Finance, 10/01/2013
Academy schools must select fairly

The Guardian, 10/01/2013
Academies report disguises the damage they are doing to British schools

The Guardian, 10/01/2013
Academies use covert selection methods to skew intake

The Guardian, 10/01/2013
School academies: not all good, or all bad – but all in need of a helping hand

The Huffington Post UK, 10/01/2013
Academies Manipulating Admissions To Exclude Poorer Pupils

The Independent, 10/01/2013
Academies ‘flout admissions rules to select privileged pupils’

The New Statesman: The Staggers, 10/01/2013
How academies covertly select pupils

The Northern Echo, 10/01/2013
Criticism of academies ‘one-sided’ says principal

The Telegraph, 10/01/2013
Academies accused of cherry picking middle-class pupils

The Telegraph Blog: News – Education, 10/01/2013
Contrary to ‘exclusive’ reports in the press, the Tories don’t have any plans to privatise state education

The Times, 10/01/2013
Strip councils of schools power

Independent Schools Council (ISC) blog, 11/01/2013
Collabetition, anyone?

Institute of Education (IOE), University of London, 11/01/2013
Local authorities should be ‘children’s champions’ under an academised school system, says IOE director

NAHT Blog: Education Otherwise – Susan Young, 11/01/2013
Academies, improving the system, and a much-misquoted report

TES, 11/01/2013
Academy status is ‘not a panacea’, experts warn

TES, 11/01/2013
From The Editor – An unfinished revolution in the reign of timidity

SecEd, 16/01/2013
Commission highlights covert selection practices and a lack of transparency in some academies

Socialist Educational Association (SEA) blog, 16/01/2013
Does the Academies Commission provide a new agenda for schools?

TES, 18/01/2013
Why do some feel the need to segregate?

Montrose42′ Blog, 20/01/2013
Collaboration and Interdependence – Is this the key to improve our education system?

edapt, Blog, 21/01/2013
A glimmer of hope from the Academies Commission?

The Guardian, 21/01/2013
Schools work best when they work together

REOnline, 22/01/2013
Unleashing Greatness and RE

Innovation Unit, Blog, 23/01/2013
Why schools need a dating service

Local Schools Network, 23/01/2013
Innovation is inhibited by league tables not by lack of freedom says Commission

Guardian, Teacher Network, 24/01/2013
Academy schools: a flawed system that cannot be sustained

The National Foundation for Educational Research, 31/01/2013
Ways to unleash greatness: key tools for all schools

Twitter @acadcomm #acadcomm

For a selection of tweets discussing the Academies Commission report, please click here.

To view the twitter conversation at the report launch event at the RSA, please click here.

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