London School of Economics and Political Science: State secondary school governance across England not fit for purpose

The state secondary school system in England is fragmented across key areas – from governance, and admissions arrangements to the curriculum and responsibility for use of resources such as the pupil premium – research from the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) and David Wolfe of Matrix has found.

Since 2010, the government’s focus on academisation has led to an expansion of academies – single-academy trusts (SATs) and multi-academy trusts (MATs) – which operate alongside local authority-maintained schools. This has had profound consequences for secondary state education, the research finds.

Where, previously, there was a clear line of responsibility with the school governing body playing a crucial role, this is no longer the case, as over three-quarters of secondary schools are academies. Whilst maintained schools have a “stakeholder” governing body, with a prescribed composition, academies do not. Academy trusts, which are registered as companies, are governed by trustees, whose appointment is often opaque.

Different types of schools are now required to follow different sets of rules. Responsibility for admissions, the curriculum and use of resources varies according to school type, and decisions are taken at different levels, with schools in MATs have less power than maintained schools or single academy trusts.

Professor Anne West, Director of the Education Research Group at LSE and one of the authors of the report, said: “The extension of the academies programme in 2010 was designed to give schools more autonomy, however, instead of levelling the playing field, there is now a huge variation in how schools are governed, the power those governing bodies (if any exist at all) have, and where the decision-making responsibilities sit with regards to admissions, curriculum and allocation and use of resources.

“Our findings highlight a clear need for greater clarity and transparency across the whole state-funded school system in England. This is why we call for policy to ensure that all state-funded schools operate to the same rules, with clearer lines of responsibility, more power at school level, and alignment of issues of admissions, curriculum and allocation and use of resources. Bringing all state-funded schools into alignment on these vital issues will help ensure the fair and equitable education that all children deserve.”

The paper argues that there is a strong case for greater transparency regarding the process of setting up academy trusts, which would ensure that parents and other stakeholders are better informed about the companies operating the schools.

The appointment of trustees of academics should also be made more open, with trustees having expertise in the field of education, the authors argue. Autonomy of decision-making should also be brought into alignment, with all schools required to have governing bodies with clear powers and responsibilities in line with those for maintained schools (currently not the case with MATs).

Admissions arrangements and criteria used by academy trusts should be aligned with those of maintained schools in the local area to aid parental “choice”. A common curriculum would help ensure equality of opportunity and should be offered in all state-funded schools.

Finally, there should be common requirements for all state-funded schools to provide public and clear information on the use of funding including the pupil premium grant.

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