What is an academy?

Children in line
More and more primary schools in England are converting to academy status. If your child’s school is planning to make the transition, what could it mean for them?

What is an academy?

An academy is an independent state-funded school. This means it’s funded directly by the government (the Education Funding Agency, EFA) rather than by a local authority as maintained schools are.

When were academies introduced?

They were originally a Labour government initiative launched in 2000, with the aim of boosting struggling schools in deprived inner-city areas. Since the 2010 election the number of academies has risen significantly. Schools rated ‘outstanding’ or ‘performing well’ by Ofsted get priority.

The future of academies has been hotly debated after the government announced that all schools would become academies. At present it appears that this will not be a mandatory process. On 10 May 2016 Nicky Morgan, the Secretary of State for Education, said: "We still want every school to become an academy by 2022. We always intended this to be a six-year process in which good schools should be able to take their own decisions about their future as academies. However, we understand the concerns that have been raised about a hard deadline and legislating for blanket powers to issue academy orders. That is why I announced on Friday that we have decided it is not necessary to take blanket powers to convert good schools in strong local authorities to academies at this time."

How are academies different from ordinary primary schools?

As local authorities do not fund academies, academies have more freedom to decide certain things for themselves. For example, they can control their own curriculum and finances, and decide how long terms and school days will be. They can also find an external sponsor, like a business, university, charity or faith body. Schools with an Ofsted rating of less than ‘outstanding’ must have a sponsor, whereas ‘outstanding’ schools can instead form a trust of people sitting on its governing body.

How are academies monitored?

Just like other schools, academies have Ofsted inspections, and their exam results are published by the Department for Education.

What are the pros of academies?

  • Some experts believe that converting to academy status can drive up a school’s performance levels. There are a few reasons for this, including the higher salaries academies can choose to pay teaching staff – they’re more likely to attract the best candidates. 
  • Academies have more flexibility on what to teach – teachers are free to deviate from the national curriculum and can adjust lessons to the particular needs or interests of a class. 
  • Academies are encouraged to collaborate with each other in a chain or partnership. This could help them share the best way of doing things and ultimately drive up standards together. However, it’s too soon to know for sure whether converting to academy status does improve overall standards. 
  • Figures suggest that the budget available for academy schools can be up to 10% higher than state schools. The reason for this is that academies have access to money the local authority holds back for things like special needs support for schools throughout the school borough.

Academies: the cons?

  • Some people worry that as academies aren’t overseen by local authorities but by the Department of Education, they won’t have the same accountability as state schools. For example, if a parent makes a complaint about their child’s academy, their local authority doesn’t have the power to investigate.
  • On a wider scale, one of the arguments against academies is the fact that local authorities’ funding has already been cut back by the government – academies diverting funds away from them will cause them to have even less to spend.
  • Another concern is that allowing private companies to sponsor academies is the first step towards privatising the education system. Add to that the worry that academies will lure the best teachers away from state schools with promises of higher pay.

Can academies select their pupils?

By law, academies have to follow the same code of admissions as state-maintained schools – the difference is that academy trusts handle that side of things rather than local authorities.
Although technically it’s not possible for academies to choose pupils depending on their ability, a report in January 2013 by the Academies Commission, Unleashing Greatness, suggested that some schools might be finding ways around this.

'My child’s school might be converting to an academy. Will I have a say?'

Parents must be given a chance to put forward their opinions before a school decides to convert to an academy, but the final decision is up to the school’s governing body.

Where can I get more information about academies?

Check out the Department for Education’s website.