What are Academies?

In the English education system academies are publicly-funded schools which operate independently of local authorities within a framework designed to promote innovation, raise school standards and increase levels of achievement for all children.

Academies have greater autonomy than traditional state schools in areas such as delivery of the curriculum, setting staff pay and conditions, and changing the length of school terms and school days.

However, as with other state schools they are still required to follow law and guidance on admissions, special educational needs and exclusions, and to collaborate and share facilities with other schools and the wider community.

Types of academies

There are two types of academies – sponsored academies and converter academies.

Sponsored academies are usually set up to replace under-performing schools with the aim of improving educational standards and raising the aspirations of, and career prospects for, pupils from all backgrounds including the most disadvantaged.

Sponsors are responsible for establishing the Academy trust, the governing body and the appointment of the head teacher. They come from a wide variety of backgrounds including businesses, faith communities, universities and individual philanthropists. Outstanding schools and academies may now also become sponsors themselves in order to help less able schools to improve.
Sponsors no longer have to make a financial contribution, or establish or support an endowment fund, as in the past. However, the Government has said any financial contribution made "at their own discretion" would be welcomed as it would provide opportunities for pupils that are not supported through government funding.

Converter academies are successful schools that have chosen to convert to academies in order to benefit from the increased autonomy academy status brings. They were introduced in 2010 as part of the Coalition government's plan to broaden the academy programme and eventually enable all schools to become academies.

The academies programme now includes primary and secondary schools, special schools, Free Schools, University Technical Colleges (UTCs), and studio schools.

The Academies Act passed in July 2010 made it possible for all maintained schools, primary secondary and special, to apply to become academies, with schools rated 'outstanding' by Ofsted being pre-approved.

From November 2010, schools ranked 'good with outstanding features' by Ofsted also became automatically eligible for academy status. All other primary and secondary schools will be eligible, provided they work in partnership with a high-performing school to help drive improvement.

Special schools – which cater for children with special educational needs or disabilities – were allowed to apply for academy status from January 2011.

The First Free Schools opened in September 2011. They are state funded, non-profit making, all-ability primary or secondary schools set up in response to demands from local parents for better educational provision within their community. They can be located in a variety of buildings, from offices to church halls, and are set up by a wide range of groups including teachers, charities, universities and businesses.

In addition to the autonomy enjoyed by all academies, Free Schools have other freedoms; for example their teachers will not necessarily need to have Qualified Teacher Status. However, they will be subject to the same Ofsted inspections and expected to maintain the same rigorous standards.

University Technical Colleges (UTCs) are technical academies specialising in subjects such as engineering and construction which are taught alongside academic subjects, ICT and business skills. UTCs are sponsored by leading local businesses and a local university and respond to local skills needs.

Studio schools are described as "an innovative new model of 14-19 year old educational provision". Catering for around 300 pupils these small schools provide project-based practical learning together with mainstream academic study. Students work with local employers and a personal coach following a curriculum designed to equip them with the skills and qualifications they will need for work or further education.

Academy funding

There are three types of funding for academies: Initial grants for the revenue costs of feasibility planning and the implementation of plans to establish an academy; capital grant for buildings; and funding for running costs once the academy is open.

The Government has stated that "becoming an academy should not bring about a financial advantage or disadvantage to a school."

Academies receive their funding directly from the Young People's Learning Agency (YPLA), an agency of the Department for Education.

They receive a General Annual Grant (GAG) which is made up of two elements: school core funding – which is the same level of per pupil funding they would receive from the local authority (LA) as a maintained school; plus the local authority central spend equivalent grant (LACSEG) – to fund those services no longer provided for them by the LA.

Academies are funded from September to August to reflect the academic year, whereas maintained schools are funded on the financial year of April to March.

Setting up an academy

Sponsored academies are established by the Secretary of State entering into a legally binding contract – the Funding Agreement (FA) – with the Academy Trust set up by the sponsor. The Funding Agreement provides the framework within which the Academy must operate and each Academy's Funding Agreement will vary according to the needs of the area and the Academy Trust.

Converter academies follow a conversion process, which includes submitting an application to convert to the DfE, developing plans with another school to raise standards, registering the Academy Trust with Companies House, agreeing leasing arrangements for the school land and buildings, and submitting a Funding Agreement to the Secretary of State which is signed and sealed by the DfE. The conversion process is expected to take a minimum of three to four months.


Academies were launched initially as city academies by the Blair government in 2000; Andrew Adonis, who was a Downing Street education policy adviser at that time, is widely credited as the architect of the programme.

In a bid to tackle the high number of poorly performing schools, Labour had already established a Fresh Start scheme in which the weakest schools were closed and then re-opened under new management. This was not an unequivocal success and in May 2000 Education Secretary David Blunkett said the Government had decided "a more radical approach" was needed and "substantial resources" would now be provided for the establishment of city academies.

The Government believed the experience of specialist schools and education action zones had shown that schools could benefit from involvement with non-government partners. Business, the churches and the voluntary sector were all potential sponsors and partners for the new city academies, which would also "take account of the best lessons of City Technology Colleges and Charter Schools in the United States."

The Education Act 2002 provided for the prefix 'city' to be removed in order to enable schools in non-city areas to join the academy programme. The Act also provided for City Technology Colleges to become academies.

The first three academies opened in 2002; they were The Business Academy, Bexley, Greig City Academy and Unity City Academy. The Business Academy, Bexley also became the first 'all-through' academy when a primary section was added in 2004.

By 2006 there were 46 academies; these included five former City Technology Colleges and five new schools. Of the 46 academies, 23 were in London. The National Audit Office reported that by October 2006 the academies programme had cost £1.3 billion in capital and running costs.

The NAO also noted that most academies "have made good progress in improving GCSE results"; however, overall performance in English and maths "remains low". Most academy buildings were "of good quality", a major factor being the "time and effort spent working with users on achieving good design," but most academy buildings had also suffered cost overruns.

The target at that time was for 200 academies to be open or in development by 2010. However, Tony Blair announced that he wanted the programme to be accelerated with 400 academies – double the target – achieved by 2010.

When Gordon Brown took over as prime minister in June 2007, he appeared equally enthusiastic, despite speculation to the contrary, and pledged to continue the expansion of the academies programme.

Writing in the Observer in 2008, Mr Brown said he had discussed with academy sponsors the possibility of "accelerating the expansion of our 400 planned academies as engines in disadvantaged areas for social mobility and social justice – not exclusive opportunities just for the few, but a new means of advancing opportunity for all."
In the event, however, the number of academies rose during his tenure from 83 in 2007 to 203 by 2010 – just slightly over the original 200 target.

The Coalition government elected in May 2010 had even more ambitious plans for the academies programme. Newly appointed Education Secretary, Michael Gove, wrote to every head teacher in England saying he intended to open up the programme to all schools, including for the first time primary and special schools.

Mr Gove said the Government was "genuinely committed to giving schools greater freedoms" and added: "We trust teachers and head teachers to run their schools. We think head teachers know how to run their schools better than bureaucrats or politicians."

Schools rated 'outstanding' by Ofsted were to be fast-tracked through the system and the Academies Bill, included in the Queen's Speech and subsequently passed in July 2010, enabled the first tranche of these academies to open in September 2010.

The academies programme has continued apace under the Coalition. By January 2011 there were 407 academies open in England. Of these 204 had opened since September 2010. An additional 254 more schools were in the pipeline having applied to become academies and more applications were coming in every week

In June 2011, the Government announced plans for "the weakest" 200 primary schools to become sponsored academies in 2012/13; this would be in addition to the 1200 schools which had already applied to convert to academy status. The Government said the rapid conversion of so many schools to academies meant there was now "a larger pool of great schools to build chains and improve under-performing schools."

As at 1st September 2011 there were 1,300 academies open in England, including 12 special academies.


The academies programme was controversial when it was launched and continues to be so today. Over the past decade the criticisms have been many and varied; they include:

Academy schools create a two-tier system; they have the best facilities and attract the best teaching staff, leaving other schools in the area as 'sink' schools.

Academies are targeted by middle class parents denying access to the disadvantaged pupils they were intended to help.

Academies 'cherry pick' their pupils, and even expel less able pupils, in order to achieve better exam results.

All of the above contribute to a widening gap between better off and less well off pupils, increasing educational inequalities based on social class.

Another major concern is a perceived "creeping privatisation" of the state school system. Unions, including the NUT, NASUWT, Unite, PCS, UNISON and the TUC are implacably opposed to academies and are affiliated to the Anti-Academies Alliance which is campaigning vigorously to "keep schools in the Local Authority family" and prevent further academies opening.

There have also been funding concerns. Of the 45 academies that were pledged endowment contributions between 2007-08 and 2009-10, more than half had not received any of these contributions by March 2010.

Also a report from the Public Accounts Committee in January 2011 noted that "many academies have inadequate financial controls and governance to assure the proper use of public money" and warned that the Department must "develop sufficient capacity and adequate arrangements to provide robust accountability and oversight of academies' use of public funds."

In addition, the Local Government Association has criticised the government’s decision to top slice local authority grants to help fund academies. Local education authorities face a funding cut of £413m over the next two years – £148m in 2011/12 and a further £265m in 2012/13 –and the LGA has said that "council tax payers should not have to foot this bill and it is wrong that frontline services may be cut to enable the academies programme to go forward."

But despite all the criticisms, Lord Adonis, the programme's original architect, remains convinced that academies are the best way to "breach the educational Berlin Wall between private and state education."

Speaking at the SSAT annual lecture in June 2011, he argued that the "simple solution" was for every successful private school, and private school foundation, to sponsor an academy or academies, in place of existing underperforming comprehensives, alongside their existing fee-paying school or schools, "turning themselves into federations of private and state schools."

And in the state sector he called for "many more good academy sponsors from all successful parts of the education system – state schools, private schools, universities, and educational foundations" who would "learn from each other and collaborate."


Sponsors of early academies were required to provide 10 per cent of the capital costs of a new building over the lifetime of the building project, capped at a maximum of £2 million.
From 2007-08, the requirement was changed to a £2 million endowment fund for each new academy (or, for sponsors of multiple academies, £1.5 million for the fourth or subsequent academy), payable over five years with a minimum of £500,000 in the first year.
Of the 45 academies that were pledged endowment contributions between 2007-08 and 2009-10, more than half had not received any of these contributions by March 2010.
In September 2009, the Government removed altogether the requirement for sponsors to make a financial contribution to new academies that open in the 2010-11 academic year.

Source: National Audit Office – 2010

Since September 2010, 1,097 schools have become academies (116 sponsored academies, 981 converter academies), meaning that 1300 academies are now open, compared to 203 opened before the Academies Act of July 2011. This is more than a six-fold increase.
This means that more than 40 per cent of all secondary schools are now open or in the process of opening as academies.
As of this September:
• there are 1,300 Academies open across the country
• in 29 local authorities, the majority of secondary schools are academies
• in addition to the open academies, a further 575 are in the pipeline, with more applications expected in the new school year
• the first 12 special schools have become Academies and we are working with 25 who are interested in doing so over the next year.

Source: Department for Education – September 2011


"We will promote the reform of schools in order to ensure that new providers can enter the state school system in response to parental demand; that all schools have greater freedom over the curriculum; and that all schools are held properly to account.
"We will give parents, teachers, charities and local communities the chance to set up new schools, as part of our plans to allow new providers to enter the state school system in response to parental demand.
"We will improve the quality of vocational education, including increasing flexibility for 14–19 year olds and creating new Technical Academies as part of our plans to diversify schools provision.
"We will ensure that all new Academies follow an inclusive admissions policy. We will work with faith groups to enable more faith schools and facilitate inclusive admissions policies in as many of these schools as possible."

The Coalition – Our programme for government – May 2010

"I am concerned that with unplanned, haphazard free schools employing unqualified teachers, and academies creating a two-tier education system that will damage the ability of local authorities to deliver central services, such as special needs support, to maintained schools, our education system will be plunged into chaos.
"Changing the way schools are organised and governed is not a guarantee of success or better education, and the mixed results from the academies established so far supports this."

Voice union general secretary Philip Parkin – January 2011

"Schools are taking up our offer to become academies because they recognise the huge benefits of being an academy – more autonomy, more power to teachers, and an opportunity to thrive, free from interference from government."

Education Secretary, Michael Gove – January 2011

“The Education Secretary is arrogantly taking to himself, without a mandate from the people of this country, the freedom to give away 150 years of state school history to his few friends, to enable them to turn a profit at the expense of our children and young people.”

NASUWT general secretary Chris Keates, speaking at the TUC Congress in London – 2011

"Ed Miliband made much of the excellent comprehensive education he received. The academies and free schools programme will simply drive divisions in our society even further and needs to end. Labour needs to commit itself fully to the level playing field of a comprehensive education system which is democratically accountable to the local community."

Christine Blower, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, commenting on the Labour leader's speech to party conference – September 2011

"It is my view, after 20 years of engagement with schools of all types, that England will never have a truly world class education system until state and private schools are part of a common national endeavour to develop the talents of all young people to the full and build a “one nation” society instead of the “them and us” of the past."

Lord Adonis – SSAT Annual Lecture – June 2011