As of 1st of March 2012 there were 1,635 academies open in England, of which 1,298 were converted academies and 337 sponsored academies. A further 161 sponsored academies, and 445 converted academies have been approved and are in development.

This represents an enormous growth in the number of academies in the past year, and in late 2011 the National College for School Leadership commissioned a report on the growth academy chains and the implications and challenges posed by this to school leaders (for full report please click here).

The numbers:

Academy chains can encompass both sponsored and converted academies, and at the beginning of 2012, nearly 350 sponsored academies (open, approved, or planned) were within 48 sponsored chains of three or more academies in each chain.  Nine sponsored chains comprise 10 or more academies.  There were a further 122 converter academy chains, 68 of which are secondary only chains, 27 primary only chains, and 27 cross-phase chains. 93 converter academies have become part of sponsored chains largely in order to sponsor other schools as academies.


The report suggests that on the whole, chains have a positive impact on pupil outcomes and school performance, mainly by having a shared vision and ethos across their schools backed by robust governance and clear lines of accountability.

Any analysis of impact has to be interpreted with care as the development of chains is very recent. However the report cites a 15 percentage point increase in pupils gaining 5 A*-C grades at GCSE including English and Math between 2008/09 and 2010/11 for chains of three or more academies, compared to 12.2 and 11 percentage points for standalone and chains of two academies respectively. In addition, larger chains were on average rated higher by Ofsted compared to academies not in chains or small chains. Yet, being part of an academy chain is no guarantee of success, as all three of the academies judged inadequate by Ofsted during 2009-10 were in federations or sponsor groups with much stronger schools.

School improvement models in sponsored chains include developing strategies covering attendance, behaviour, teaching, and learning, which is implemented across schools.  Furthermore, leaders and specialist staff can be moved around the different academies in the chain in order to tackle any particular issues, offering a cost effective alternative to each school procuring specialist staff separately.

The main non-educational services that were provided centrally in academy chains were human resources, insurance, legal services, audit and ICT services.

Risks and risk management:

Nevertheless, there are a variety of challenges that leaders face for their chains to be successful. These include managing the rapid rate of expansion effectively and ensuring effective collaboration (both within and between chains), as well developing a rigorous structure for accountability.

Some of the risks of expanding chains reported by CEOs of academy chains in this report include damage to the entire chain reputation if one of its new academies fails to improve; increased bureaucracy; central services becoming overstretched if too many academies are taken on; and existing schools slipping back as energy is focused on new joiners.

Chains can manage the risks of expanding by:

  • Being clear about the strategic future of the chain, including its geographical spread and the balance between the different phases of schooling;
  • Developing leadership arrangement so that they do not become too stretched, such as creating smaller local clusters within the chain;
  • Evaluating each new project carefully before taking on another academy and avoid having too many new projects on at the same time;
  • Supporting the development of leaders and executive principles to make sure there is sufficient spread to support the academies across the chain;
  • Maintaining strong quality assurance processes to ensure that existing academies do not slip back while leadership energies are directed elsewhere;
  • A clearly defined ethos and set of values that are evident in how the chain works on a day-to-day basis.

Future growth and development

The report found that CEOs of sponsored academy chains envision some increase in the number of secondary schools in their chain, but see most growth being in the primary sector. Some leaders plan to take on clusters of up to six primary schools at the same time in order to provide the most cost-effective support. The growth of converter chains is less predictable and is seen to depend upon a variety of factors, including whether primary academies become more mainstream; how hard Department for Education (DfE) ministers push chains when schools convert to academy status; and whether financial pressure will force standalone academies to come together.

Challenges for the wider education system:

The report suggests a variety of ways in which the DfE can help address some of the challenges facing academy chains. This includes ensuring that the growth of any chain at any one time is realistic and manageable; increasing the number of primary school academies by promoting academy chains; asking for stronger evidence that converter partnerships are well structured and can bring forward improvement; addressing the complexities of faith school governance; and publishing information on the performance of chains as well as taking early action where chains are struggling to deliver improvements.

Overall, the landscape of education is undeniably changing, and the number of academy chains as well as the size of the chains looks to increase further in the future. There is great opportunity to bring about innovation and improvement throughout the country, using economy of scale to drive efficiency and organise support functions to deal with tightened budgets and ensure that school leaders can spend more time on their core business.

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