Study highlights benefits and pitfalls of ‘sponsored chain’ academies

Chains of academies are becoming increasingly important players and a significant feature of the education landscape in England, according to a new in-depth study published today by the National College for School Leadership.

The chains – groups of academies run by the same sponsor or trust as part of an overarching governance arrangement – are already educating hundreds of thousands of pupils. Around three per cent of all schools and academies, rising to almost 10 per cent of secondary schools – will soon be part of one.

The research team, led by policy analyst Robert Hill, charts the rise of 48 “sponsored chains” of three or more academies – including some much larger ones – as well as 122 “converter chains” and examines the implications for school leaders and policy makers. Almost 350 of the 570 sponsored academies are or soon will be in chain of three or more, and around a quarter of the 1,775 schools applying to convert to academy status are doing so as part of a chain.

Researchers found that this expansion is being driven by schools – or other educational establishments such as Further Education institutions – sponsoring other schools, demonstrating how the sector is increasingly taking a lead in supporting its own improvement.

The main driver in the growth of chains, since the very first one in 2004, is the desire and ethos of the sponsors and academies to extend their school improvement model and expertise to more schools. Schools are also coming together to use their economies of scale to drive efficiency and organise central support functions, enabling heads to focus on delivering consistently good or outstanding lessons.

The most effective chains are adept at nurturing the best talent within their organisations and have a shared vision and ethos across their schools, backed by robust governance that helps them to focus on improving performance. The study also found early indications that sponsored academy chains are improving at a faster rate than academies that are standalone or working in pairs. However the very rapid growth in the size of chains is posing some challenges and the report recommends some strategies for managing these so chains can sustain improvement during growth and avoid becoming isolated from each other.

Robert Hill said: “Academy chains are a positive development within the English education system. They are bringing innovation and systematic improvement and helping to raise attainment in some of the most deprived parts of the country. They are growing an able new generation of school leaders and enabling school leaders to spend more time on their core business of teaching and learning. They are combining new approaches to learning with standardising the best aspects of school improvement.

“But academy chains are not a panacea for all the problems of schools. Being part of a chain does not necessarily guarantee success or insure against failure. Sponsored chains have challenges to address as they expand. They need to reflect on what it means to be a chain and be clear about their teaching and learning and operating model. The performance of weaker chains needs addressing. Converter chains too have a host of issues to consider as they consolidate and seek to maximise the gains from their new status.”

Steve Munby, Chief Executive of the National College that commissioned the research, said: “This is a timely study which captures the scale and pace of change with chains of academies becoming well established and increasingly influential.

“Rather than re-inventing the wheel, academy chains are extending the practice of schools leading other schools with some distinct and effective approaches. This is encouraging as we develop an education sector that is capable of continually improving itself. However there is still much to learn about the most effective chains and how best to manage the challenges. We need to ensure that chains continue to learn from each other so they can sustain improvement while supporting increasing numbers of schools.”

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