I’ve just read a newly-published report on comparative costs between academies and LA schools. Here’s a brief summary and some of my thoughts around my own research possibilities.

This research was commissioned by the Local Government Association (LGA) and looks at the comparative costs of the middle tier in academies and in LA maintained systems.

“Understanding the Middle Tier: Comparative Costs of Academy and LA-maintained School Systems” – Dr Sara Bubb, Jonathan Crossley-Holland, Julie Cordiner, Dr Susan Cousin and Professor Peter Earley

Available from Sara Bubb Associates Education Consulting (click this link)
ISBN: 978-1-5272-4335-4  |  DOI: 10.13140/RG.2.2.23574.29761

In England, state schools are funded by Government and are accountable to the Department for Education (DfE). In a local authority model of maintained schools the LA provides systems for supporting and holding the schools to account for standards. In the academies model this is generally provided by the multi-academy trust to which those academies belong. At the time of the report, 59.6% of schools in England were LA maintained and 40.4% were academies and free schools.

The researchers analysed financial data from 2016/17, which is the most recent (complete) data they had, but they found challenges in how useful this data was as information from some of the other organisations involved in the middle tier functions for schools is not published. Moreover, there are inconsistencies in financial reporting.  They considered three contrasting geographical areas in England and also identified the key features of the middle tier in four leading education systems – Singapore, Finland, Estonia and Ontario.

The report found that “the current system was a ‘muddle'” when compared with those four high performing education systems. They also found that the oversight functions for academies cost 44% more than for LA schools. 

The report discusses the reasons for this difference in cost and compares those of different sizes of multi-academy trusts. It compares funding between academies and LA schools (4.4% higher in academies in the primary sector) recognising that there are different types of academies and that pupil characteristics has a part to play. It considers expenditure and also the cost of leaders’ salaries.

The report makes recommendations to policy-makers, the main one being that there should be an urgent debate about the role of the middle tier. 

I am interested in the additional value a multi-academy trust can add to the education system and how this can be effective at a time when education funding has been reduced (in real terms). My area of research is likely to be around effective governance that supports the school system in MATs, but that may shift as we head through a general election (12th December 2019). The political parties are in the process of launching their manifestos – Labour claim that they would “end the fragmentation and marketisation of our school system by bringing free schools and academies back under the control of the people who know them best – parents, teachers and local communities” (Labour Party Manifesto, 2019, available at labour.org.uk/manifesto).

Many local authorities have cut back in their capacity for support to schools and only provide statutory services, whereas some MATs have strong school improvement teams that cost money.

This report has questioned my thinking around the structures and systems in place within a middle tier, especially when comparing the English education system with those of other high-performing countries. How can we measure impact and effectiveness when the system is in such a muddle?